When Joe Manchin recently called in to a West Virginia radio station, the host pressed the Democratic senator over his unusual step of wading into a House GOP primary in his home state.
Manchin had cut a TV ad for Rep. David McKinley, who, due to redistricting after the 2020 census, is being forced to fight it out for the GOP nomination in the 2nd Congressional District with a House Republican colleague, Rep. Alex Mooney. Winning the May 10 Republican primary is tantamount to claiming the seat in the deep-red state where former President Donald Trump had his second-best showing in the nation in 2020.
The radio host in the Monday interview, like many commentators on the race, pointed out how “peculiar” it was for an officeholder to endorse a lawmaker from the opposite party.
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The endorsement has become political fodder for Mooney, who derided McKinley on Saturday as a RINO, or “Republican in name only,” for accepting a Democrat’s support. That attack led Manchin to defend McKinley not by highlighting his centrism, as a Democrat might be expected to do, but instead by insisting McKinley is a “dyed-in-the-wool, hardcore conservative.”
“There is not a more true, to the core of their body and soul and every drop of blood in their body, Republican than David McKinley,” Manchin said on the radio program. “They don’t come any more Republican than David McKinley.”
To political operatives in the state, Manchin’s support for McKinley in next week's GOP primary isn’t all that surprising.
Manchin, 74, and McKinley, 75, are not only about the same age, in contrast to the 50-year-old Mooney, but they were longtime colleagues in the state legislature. McKinley was a state delegate from 1980-1994; Manchin was elected to West Virginia's House of Delegates in 1982 and moved up to the state Senate four years later, staying until an unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial primary bid in 1996.
The opposite-party pair were both elected to Congress in 2010, with Manchin, by then West Virginia's governor for six years, winning election to the Senate, while McKinley won a House seat covering the state's northern tier. McKinley, by that point, had been involved in Republican politics for decades, including a stint as state GOP party chairman from 1990-1994.
In Congress, both have been fairly reliable votes for their parties but have not been afraid to buck their own congressional leadership. After all, Manchin's first Senate campaign included a TV spot literally taking aim at top Democratic agenda items such as climate change regulations. And Manchin has famously refused to change the Senate's filibuster rules, blocking many of President Joe Biden's top agenda items from becoming law.
McKinley, meanwhile, was one of only 13 Republicans to vote for Biden's infrastructure bill last year. McKinley, a Purdue University-trained engineer, said the infrastructure law was in the best interest of West Virginia residents, and the move earned the praise of Manchin at the time. The law is expected to bring some $6 billion in projects to West Virginia.
McKinley also backed an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, in which Trump supporters tried to reverse Biden's 2020 win. Both votes defied the wishes of House Republican leadership.
“I know David. And I trust David. And I know he’s just all about West Virginia — everything he’s done his entire life, it’s about, ‘How can we improve the state of West Virginia?’” Manchin told WV MetroNews's Talkline on Monday.
McKinley stands to benefit from the support as he and Mooney, who's been endorsed by Trump in the race, fight to stay in office after West Virginia lost one of its three House seats following the 2020 census.
Though Manchin only won reelection to the Senate in 2018 by 3 percentage points, down from 24 points in 2012, his approval rating among Republicans in the deep-red state doubled over the past year, according to Morning Consult, as Manchin held up and ultimately killed Biden’s signature domestic policy bill, Build Back Better, which needed the backing of every Democratic senator in the evenly divided chamber.
“It’s a natural endorsement for McKinley to want and a natural one for Manchin to give,” a Republican operative in the state told the Washington Examiner.
But Manchin injecting himself into the GOP primary is just as much about Mooney as it is about McKinley. During his interview on West Virginia radio, Manchin said that he doesn’t “know Alex that much,” claiming Mooney only came to the state for “political opportunity.” Manchin contrasted Mooney’s newcomer status with the generations the McKinley family has lived in the Mountain State.
The criticism of Mooney as a “carpetbagger” has dogged him since he moved to West Virginia in 2013 after a career as a state senator and Republican Party chairman in Maryland and a prior run for state office in New Hampshire. Charleston insiders of both parties widely view Mooney as absent from the House district he’s represented since 2015, even though it's only a couple hours' drive from Washington, D.C.
“The running joke in Charleston, and Charleston has been part of Mooney’s district, is that he comes here so infrequently that he needs a map to get around,” Mike Plante, a West Virginia-based Democratic strategist, told the Washington Examiner.
Ultimately, Plante says, Manchin’s support for McKinley is consistent with the endorsements he’s given over the years and says something about his temperament as a politician.
Outside of the state, he’s drawn attention for his endorsements of centrist Republicans in the Senate, including Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins. But McKinley is not the first Republican to receive Manchin's support in West Virginia either. In 1996, Manchin backed Cecil Underwood over Charlotte Pritt, the Democratic nominee, because he said she wasn’t “interested in the concerns of moderate and conservative Democrats.”
“One of Joe Manchin’s hallmarks, for good or ill, depending on your perspective, is he’s always been someone who’s prided himself on being bipartisan, and with Joe, bipartisanship is not just a throwaway term. He tries to walk the walk,” said Plante.
Manchin’s willingness to work across the aisle has helped him survive politically in a state that turned dark red after decades as a Democratic stronghold. He’s developed a reputation for his willingness to buck his party, and crossing party lines with endorsements may help him reinforce his independent streak to conservative and swing voters.
Some commentators have speculated that as Manchin weighs whether to seek reelection in 2024, he might be opposing Mooney because he’s thought to be considering a run for Manchin’s seat. If Mooney loses in 2022, it could handicap the lawmaker in 2024 should he consider a Senate run.
Plante, however, didn’t find that argument persuasive. “McKinley has been mentioned as a possible challenger to Manchin — Patrick Morrisey has been mentioned,” he said, referencing Manchin's vanquished 2018 GOP rival, currently West Virginia's attorney general. “These seats don’t come open often, and being a red state, I think any Republican of any stature is going to look at that Senate seat. I don’t think that entered into the calculation here.”
“One could make the case that Mooney would be an easier opponent to defeat in a Senate election,” he added.
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In a poll taken earlier this year by Triton Polling and Research, Manchin led Mooney and Morrisey in a hypothetical Senate matchup by 21 points. That lead dropped to 4 points against West Virginia’s sitting governor, Republican Jim Justice.
Manchin has said he won’t decide on whether to run until after the midterm elections.