- The Washington Times
Monday, May 2, 2022

Sen. Joe Manchin III is going head-to-head with former President Donald Trump in West Virginia, putting to test just how much good will he has gained among Republicans for opposing the White House’s $1.75 trillion social welfare package.

Mr. Manchin, a Democrat, this weekend endorsed Rep. David McKinley in a heated contest against Trump-backed Rep. Alex Mooney for the GOP nomination for West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District.

As part of his endorsement, Mr. Manchin vouched for Mr. McKinley’s opposition to President Biden’s $1.75 trillion “reckless spending” program, formally called the “Build Back Better” plan.

“I have always said, if I can’t go home and explain it, I can’t vote for it, and that’s why I opposed Build Back Better,” Mr. Manchin said. “For Alex Mooney and his out-of-state supporters to suggest David McKinley supported Build Back Better is an outright lie.”

The endorsement puts Mr. Manchin directly at odds with Mr. Trump. The former president endorsed Mr. Mooney last year shortly after Mr. McKinley and 12 other Republicans broke ranks to pass the White House’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

“It is not surprising that Joe Manchin and the Democratic Party want to defeat a principled conservative like me,” Mr. Mooney said.

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Political analysts say that Mr. Manchin’s endorsement is serving as something of a test run for reelection in 2024. While most see Mr. Manchin as vulnerable in two years’ time, they also say that his opposition to Build Back Better may have created an opening among Republicans.

A recent Morning Consult survey found Mr. Manchin with a 57% job approval rating among West Virginia’s electorate. When broken down along party lines, the survey found that 69% of Republicans approve of Mr. Manchin’s performance, compared to 44% of Democrats.

“I think this could be sort of billed as a test of Manchin’s newfound clout with some Republican voters,” said J. Miles Coleman, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

“Manchin’s crafted this position as something of a maverick by thumbing his nose at his party. That could be helpful in the future because he’ll be pretty dependent on Republicans to win again,” Mr. Coleman said.

While such crossover support is by no means certain, it might be Mr. Manchin’s best shot in his increasingly Republican state. In 2020, West Virginia backed Mr. Trump by the second-largest margin of any state in the country.

That fact alone would be enough for some to write off Mr. Manchin. However, experts say that if Mr. Manchin’s Republican support is real, he could secure reelection by getting the dwindling base of West Virginia Democrats out to vote, while picking up enough crossover Republicans.

A lot of that strategy will depend on whether Republicans show up for Mr. Manchin.

While West Virginia is close to becoming as much of a one-party state as (on the other side) California, there are still various factions competing against each other in the ascendant GOP.  

“Right now there is tension between the MAGA crowd and the more mainstream Republicans,” said John Kilwein, a political science professor at West Virginia University. “By endorsing McKinley, Manchin lined up with the GOP establishment. But will they support him down the line?”

Apart from testing Mr. Manchin’s appeal among Republicans, several other factors are at play in his endorsement of Mr. McKinley.

Mr. Manchin, for instance, only lost the newly reconfigured 2nd Congressional District by 415 votes during his 2018 campaign. By inserting himself into the race now, Mr. Manchin is raising his profile in an area that will be vital in the future.

Notably, Mr. Manchin’s intercession could also help more directly shape the 2024 contest. Mr. Mooney, a stalwart of the House Freedom Caucus and proliferate fundraiser, has often been mentioned as a potential Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

“It’s fairly fortuitous for Manchin if Mooney fails to make it out of the primary,” Mr. Coleman said. “That’s another potential rival gone.”

Mr. Manchin’s intercession comes just ahead of West Virginia’s May 10 primary. Since the state is losing one of its two congressional districts due to population loss, Mr. McKinley and Mr. Mooney wound up pitted against each other in a rare incumbent-on-incumbent primary.

Regardless of who emerges from the race, political strategists say that Mr. Manchin is the real victor.

Not only is the senator popular enough among Republicans to warrant a cross-party endorsement, but Mr. Manchin has also burnished his “middle of the road” credentials by endorsing a GOP incumbent.

Joe Manchin didn’t have anything to lose by doing this,” said Greg Thomas, a West Virginia-based campaign strategist. “If McKinley loses, no one is going to blame Manchin and if he wins, Manchin will get more credit than he probably deserves.”  

Some also say that if Mr. McKinley wins, Mr. Manchin will have a powerful argument for fundraising: mainly that he went head-to-head with Mr. Trump in a GOP primary and came out on top.

“That’s something he can easily sell to donors, pundits and anyone else doubting his chances in 2024,” Mr. Coleman said.

• Haris Alic can be reached at halic@washingtontimes.com.

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