INSTITUTE, W.Va. — The leading candidates in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, were absent from a Monday debate at West Virginia State University, but that did not stop the other Republicans from going after them.
The four candidates addressed the audience about their campaigns before attacking Jenkins and Morrisey, both of whom will participate in the Fox News debate in Morgantown on Tuesday.
“We have two career politicians in this race that are leaving jobs that they were elected to do to leapfrog on an opportunity to move up, so to speak,” former coal miner Bo Copley said. “I’m tired of seeing that. I’m tired of people leaving us in the wake because they’re going to further a political agenda. I’m tired of political agendas.”
The debate was hosted by the university’s NRA Collegiate Coalition. The Jenkins and Morrisey campaigns were represented by surrogates, Jenkins campaign political director Joe Reidy and state Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, respectively. Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was at Monday’s event, and will also participate in Tuesday’s debate.
Reidy said Jenkins was unable to attend because of television work related to the Fox News debate. Morrisey spokesperson Nachama Soloveichik said the attorney general had “a conflict that created logistical issues.”
A majority of the attacks were directed at Morrisey, who was second in last week’s Fox News poll with 21 percent of respondents supporting his campaign.
When asked about addressing the opioid crisis, business owner and National Guard Maj. Tom Willis said he supports expanding alternative sentencing and drug courts, similar to a response he gave at the April 23 debate in Wheeling.
“To get somebody back on their feet as a productive member of society is the goal, and that takes one-on-one relationships over an extended period of time,” he said.
Willis then shifted to addressing Morrisey’s connections with drug wholesalers, including his and his wife’s lobbying work representing the pharmaceutical industry.
“Back in 2000, when I raised my hand to join the West Virginia National Guard, our attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, was running for Congress in New Jersey. From there, he went to lobby for the drug companies,” he said. “They have supported his campaign substantially, even paid for his inauguration party in 2016. He has nowhere near the funds to make the loans he is to his campaign on his attorney general salary, but he’s loaned his campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars. Coincidentally, his wife has earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the drug companies.”
Willis added the pharmaceutical industry has committed a “social genocide” in West Virginia.
Truck driver and U.S. Navy veteran Jack Newbrough said he would support anyone of the Republican candidates except Morrisey.
“I’m just sick and tired of West Virginia being a stepping stone for somebody’s political career,” he said. “Whichever one of these guys up here I will support them 100 percent, but I will not support Patrick Morrisey. If he wins the Republican nomination, I will not back him and I am not afraid to say it and I’m letting it out there right now.”
Blankenship went after Jenkins for the drug problems in Huntington, as well as Morrisey for his ties to drug companies.
“One of them oversees a district that is number one in drug abuse deaths and lives in a city that is the number one city in drug abuse,” he said.
“A lot of people paid for his inauguration and have contributed to his personal wealth,” Blankenship said of Morrisey.
The Charleston Gazette reported in 2013 that Cardinal Health contributed $2,500 to a fund established to pay for Morrisey’s 2013 inauguration party. Morrisey’s wife also lobbied for the company.
The former coal executive also went after Jenkins and Morrisey in regards to abortion; Jenkins voted for the omnibus spending bill in March — which did not prevent funding for Planned Parenthood despite some conservative demands — and Morrisey’s wife works for a lobbying firm that represents Planned Parenthood.
“It’s not brain surgery to figure out that people who are beholden to drug companies and beholden to abortionists and have never created a job are not going to fix West Virginia’s shortage of jobs, get rid of the drug epidemic or stop abortion,” Blankenship said.
The Blankenship campaign released a new advertisement prior to the debate, going after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
“One of my goals as U.S. senator is to ditch Cocaine Mitch,” Blankenship said in the ad.
It is not clear what Blankenship was referencing, but it could be a 2014 report from the Nation regarding how 90 pounds of cocaine was found on a cargo vessel owned by the family of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
While Morrisey was attacked at the debate, he did receive a boost from conservatives on Monday by means of an endorsement from the editors of the National Review.
“He is a nose-to-the-grindstone hard worker who we are confident would not be a time-server or wallflower should he make it to the Senate,” the editors wrote.
The National Rifle Association, West Virginians for Life PAC, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz are also endorsing Morrisey’s campaign. Morrisey will host a campaign event with Paul in Huntington on Thursday.