Senate Republicans at last landed their preferred recruit to run against West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin on Thursday when Gov. Jim Justice launched his long-awaited campaign. Opening for Justice at his announcement was the state's other senator, Shelley Moore Capito, while National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Steve Daines issued a simultaneous statement just short of a formal endorsement that called the governor a "proven winner."
Manchin, for his part, maintains he'll wait until December to decide whether he'll seek reelection in what's become an otherwise implacably red state, but the Democrat predicted Justice would be in for "a real donnybrook" of a primary against Rep. Alex Mooney in a race where both Republicans are already previewing the attacks they'll use on one another.
Mooney, who kicked off his own bid just a week after the 2022 elections, greeted his rival's entrance with a TV ad in which the narrator accuses Justice of "trying to hide his liberal record" as footage shows him awkwardly placing a face mask over his eyes. And while the spot does not mention that the governor was elected in 2016 as a Democrat before switching parties the following year, it does tear into his public health measures during the pandemic and accuses Justice of having "pushed the largest tax hike in West Virginia history." The narrator continues by saying the governor also "backed Joe Biden's trillion-dollar spending bill and tried to stop adults from buying sporting rifles."
NBC says Mooney is spending just $11,000 to air the spot, which is the type of small buy candidates run when they're aiming to make sure their message gets written about by the media rather than seen by many voters. (Nathan Gonzales once characterized these sorts of commercials as "essentially a video press release.") However, Mooney's side will have plenty of resources to make its case ahead of next year's primary. The congressman finished March with $1.4 million in the bank, while his allies at the far-right Club for Growth have pledged to spend $10 million to help him win the nod over "Mitch McConnell's handpicked candidate."
Justice himself has not hidden how little he thinks of Mooney, a former Maryland state senator who only moved to the Mountain State in 2013 ahead of his first congressional bid. Last year, Mooney competed in a primary with fellow Rep. David McKinley to represent the northern half of the state after West Virginia lost one of its three House seats following the 2020 census; both Justice and Manchin converged behind McKinley while the Club and Donald Trump pulled for Mooney. Justice said he had "serious concerns" about Mooney's "ability to represent West Virginians well, after spending the majority of his time and life representing Maryland," but that didn't stop Mooney from prevailing by a comfortable 54-36 margin.
Justice, though, has continued to portray the rival as an outsider. Just months after last year's primary, the two were on opposite sides in a fight over a constitutional amendment that, among other things, would have let the legislature exempt vehicles from personal property taxes. Justice, in his successful campaign to derail the amendment, mocked Mooney by asking, "Really and truly, does Congressman Mooney even know West Virginia exists?"
A March survey from National Public Affairs, a group Politico says has "some ties" to Trump, showed Justice with a punishing 55-24 lead for the nomination, though Mooney unsurprisingly is arguing things will change "once my name recognition gets up, especially down south and in my new district." Justice characteristically retorted, "He's in the U.S. Congress and at the end of the day, I'll promise you from Clarksburg south, nobody's hardly seen him." (Mooney's 2nd District contains a wide swath of the state south of Clarksburg, a small city that had previously been represented by McKinley.)
But Justice does start out behind in the money race, despite his immense personal wealth: He's indicated he won't throw down any of his own cash for this new effort. "Without any question, that person's not going to fund his own campaign, and I would not advise doing that," he told MetroNews this week, referring to himself in the third person. "This needs to be an all-in approach," he insisted. "Everybody should be all in." Justice, who made his fortune in the coal industry, may be able to self-fund if he changes his mind, though he's not quite as loaded as he used to be: Forbes, which labeled him "The Deadbeat Billionaire" in 2019, reported two years later that Justice is no longer a member of the 10-figure club following several chaotic years for his businesses.
Can we have fairer, more representative elections in the U.S.? Absolutely, says Deb Otis on this week's episode of "The Downballot." Otis, the director of research at FairVote, tells us about her organization's efforts to advocate for two major reforms—ranked-choice voting and proportional representation—and the prospects for both. RCV, which is growing in popularity, not only helps ensure candidates win with majorities but can lower the temperature by encouraging cross-endorsements. PR, meanwhile, would give voters a stronger voice, especially when they're a minority in a dark red or dark blue area.