Political movements are defined as much, if not more, by who leads them, as opposed to issues that the movement embraces. For West Virginia Republicans, former President Donald Trump remains the titular head.
Trump’s 2020 loss did not end his influence. He has continued his campaign based, in part, on the false grievance of a stolen election. Additionally, inflation and skyrocketing fuel prices have added heft to the Republican argument that “things were better under Trump.”
Trump’s elevated tide in West Virginia lifted Congressman Alex Mooney to a landslide over fellow Congressman David McKinley in Tuesday’s 2nd District Republican Primary. Mooney, who was backed by Trump, beat McKinley by 18 points, winning all but three of the 27 counties in the district.
“Obviously, the endorsement of President Trump was crucial,” Mooney told MetroNews.
Mooney’s decisive victory is an indicator of the direction of the Republican Party in West Virginia that more moderate Republicans would be wise to understand. The pro-business, Chamber of Commerce conservatives who are willing to engage in bi-partisanship are losing ground to the Trumpian nationalists.
The Trump/Mooney wing, which is also reflected in the increasing social conservatism and far right agenda of Republicans in the state legislature, has rapidly expanded its influence in GOP politics.
In the House of Delegates, Speaker Roger Hanshaw is a conservative Republican who would rather focus on economic issues. However, he increasingly finds himself being tugged farther to the right by his caucus.
In the state Senate, the word was some moderate Republicans, and maybe a Democrat or two, had an idea of unseating Craig Blair, the conservative Senate President. However, the candidates backed by the Blair-led Republican Senate Caucus won in ten of eleven contested races.
Governor Jim Justice is popular. The MetroNews West Virginia Poll has the Republican’s approval rating at an incredible 72 percent. Justice’s conservative bona fides are rooted more in economic than social issues. He would rather cut a ribbon at a groundbreaking than go to the mats on abortion.
He put his considerable heft behind McKinley and never moved the needle. West Virginia Republicans are fine with Justice, but he’s no Donald Trump. Justice said his good friend Donald Trump made a mistake when he endorsed Mooney. The voters responded, “Uh, no he didn’t.”
Senator Shelley Moore Capito remains the top Republican in the state. Hard work, relentless stumping in the state and the smarts to avoid unforced errors keep her in a position of power at home and in Washington. She was careful to stay out of the Mooney-McKinley fracas.
Mooney is no threat to her, but the wave that swept Mooney to victory, Trump’s potential 2024 campaign and the expansion of the extremely conservative wing of the GOP in the legislature suggest the ground within the Republican Party is shifting even farther to the right.