GOP Senate candidates face off in Martinsburg debate

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Heading into Tuesday’s debate between four Republican candidates for U.S. Senate, it would have been understandable to assume it would get heated.

U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey have been going at each other since before Jenkins announced in June 2017 he was looking to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.

Then there is former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who has self-funded more than 20 video advertisements going after Jenkins, Morrisey and Manchin, as well as testimonials attempting to boost his image.

But the debate between these three candidates and business owner and National Guard Maj. Tom Willis was mostly calm, with each candidate using their allocated time to discuss their stance on issues such as immigration, the opioid crisis and abortion.

The candidates shared the stage at the Apollo Civic Theater for an hour-long debate, with radio station WEPM news director Hans Fogle serving as moderator. WEPM is an affiliate of West Virginia MetroNews.

Two other Republican candidates — former coal miner Bo Copley and U.S. Navy veteran Jack Newbrough — were unable to attend.

The candidates didn’t disagree with each other on core conservative issues; all four candidates spoke out against gun control policies, in opposition to abortion and in favor of additional immigration measures, including President Donald Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall and ending sanctuary cities.

It was the question regarding the candidate’s stance on abortion that caused the only exchange of the evening. Morrisey, who has been endorsed by West Virginians for Life, went after Jenkins for voting in favor of the omnibus spending bill last month, which Morrisey claimed included funding for Planned Parenthood. The spending bill does not include provisions some conservatives asked for that would have blocked funding for Planned Parenthood.

Jenkins, who has a 100 percent score from the anti-abortion organization National Right to Life, went after Morrisey for his wife’s lobbying work. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported in May 2017 that Morrisey’s wife, Denise Henry Morrisey, holds the second-largest ownership stake in Capitol Counsel, which has represented Planned Parenthood in opposing legislation that would negatively affect the organization.

“I’m willing to stand up to Planned Parenthood. I am willing to defund and have voted to defund Planned Parenthood,” Jenkins said. “Unfortunately, the Morrisey family has taken from Planned Parenthood. We can’t trust him on life.

Morrisey said Jenkins’ claim was incorrect and was “another example of Evan Jenkins trying to distort my clear conservative record.”

“My wife didn’t make one penny of money from that group. Period,” Morrisey said.

Where the candidates differed was in their approaches to addressing the opioid crisis; Morrisey said his office has taken on drug distributors and manufacturers, as well as filed a lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration for not doing enough to limit the public supply of opioids. He added he believes the federal government should foster cooperation between state and local bodies.

Blankenship proposed drug testing public employees, including teachers and lawmakers.

“I believe in making sure those who are, if you will, looking to correct the problem are not on drugs to begin with,” he said.

Jenkins invited other candidates to sign his “People Over Pills” pledge, in which the candidates would agree to not take campaign donations from drug companies and manufacturers. He also welcomed drug testing public officials, and said building the border wall and ending sanctuary cities would help end the drug crisis.

“Let me leave you on this philosophy: a good job solves a lot of problems,” he said. “Let’s put hope and opportunity back in people’s lives. Get them a good job that pays them a living wage, and we won’t have people going into the disease of addiction like we have seen.”

Willis — who described the opioid epidemic as a national and economic security issue — said the opioid crisis will need “creative ways” and solutions, noting mentorship programs, alternative sentencing and faith-based initiatives. He added the state needed additional funding to properly assist those in need.

“This is a complex problem that is going to take a whole, complex society solution,” said Willis, who is co-owner of the Glen Ferris Inn.

The primary election will take place May 8.

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