West Virginia Republican Senate candidates direct their fire at Joe Manchin

April 24, 2018 GMT

The six Republicans vying to defeat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia tried to outdo each other Monday night in clinging to President Trump, pitching themselves to voters in the deep-red state as the candidate best able to make the president’s agenda a reality.

With the primary election just two weeks away, the candidates gathered for a Senate primary debate in Wheeling and took very few shots at each other, instead directing their fire at Mr. Manchin, former President Obama, and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

Republicans see the state as a potential win for them in November, with polls showing that a generic GOP candidate would beat Mr. Manchin, though the Democratic incumbent is popular in his own right, has posted impressive fundraising numbers in recent months, and has one of the least-liberal voting records among Congressional Democrats.

The presence of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship who served a year in federal prison in connection with the Upper Big Branch mine explosion of 2010, which killed 29 miners cast a shadow over the debate. Moderators began the forum by addressing “the elephant in the room” and asking Mr. Blankenship to speak about the tragedy.

He repeated his claim that the explosion was the result of federal regulators, and that Upper Big Branch will “help me in this election” when voters learn the truth. “I’m going to focus on on preventing it from happening again,” he said.

Recent surveys have shown Mr. Blankenship in a virtual tie for first place with West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, with Rep. Evan Jenkins, a Democrat-turned-Republican, coming in a close third.

Longshot candidates Bo Copley, Jack Newbrough, and Tom Willis also took the stage Monday night at Wheeling Jesuit University.

Groups with ties to national GOP leaders have in recent weeks poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into anti-Blankenship advertising in the state, fearing he’d lose the November election to Mr. Manchin.

But his competitors didn’t challenge Mr. Blankenship on Monday night, nor did they spend much time attacking any other candidate.

Instead, for the frontrunners gunning for the opportunity to take down Mr. Manchin, the debate offered an opportunity to vehemently defend Mr. Trump, who remains very popular in the state and trounced Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 by a historic 42-point margin.

“I think President Trump has West Virginia’s back,” Mr. Morrisey said.

Mr. Jenkins, who endorsed Mr. Trump early in the 2016 election process, told voters he’s the only Senate candidate who’s already in Washington fighting for conservative values.

“Our president is somebody who was put in this office to stand up for who we are and what we believe in and I think he’s doing a darn good job,” he said.

Mr. Newbrough, a Navy veteran and truck driver, said there’s no issue on which he disagrees with Mr. Trump. “His love for military and country is amazing to me,” he said.

Mr. Copley, a coal miner, lauded Mr. Trump for trying a different approach to fix a broken and ineffective Washington. “It looks like the most dysfunctional family you’ve ever seen,” he said.

Mr. Willis, a restaurant and hotel owner and Air National Guard veteran, said he’d be best able to defeat Mr. Manchin because he’s a political clean slate. “I think the best candidate to beat Joe Manchin is a credible candidate who doesn’t come into the general election with a lot of easily attackable baggage,” he said.

For Mr. Blankenship, that baggage is his year spent in federal prison, on a misdemeanor count of conspiring to violate mine-safety rules at Upper Big Branch, though he was acquitted of felony charges of lying about them.

For Mr. Jenkins, it’s his years spent as a Democrat.

For Mr. Morrisey, who built a national profile battling the Obama administration’s regulatory agenda, it’s his past ties to the pharmaceutical sector, which his opponents argue is largely responsible for the state’s crippling opioid epidemic.

Each candidate vowed to make the opioid crisis a central focus if elected, and each also promised to oppose any attempt to weaken the Second Amendment or impose any type of new restrictions on gun ownership.

Just before the debate, Mr. Manchin’s campaign released new fundraising figures saying the candidate has pulled in $935,000 in the first quarter of this year and has about $5.5 million on hand far more than his competitors.

“The numbers don’t lie: Sen. Manchin has strong grassroots support from all over West Virginia,” said Manchin campaign spokesman Grant Herring.