West Virginia’s outspoken Republican attorney general is likely to launch a bid for the Senate in a race that could put him up against against incumbent Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump administration seeks to use global aid for nuclear projects Shelley Moore Capito wins Senate primary West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice wins GOP gubernatorial primary MORE (D) in one of 2018’s most closely watched races.
Patrick Morrisey, who has been the state’s top lawyer since 2013, is likely to bring environmental regulation and coal to the forefront of the race to represent the No. 2 coal-producing state in the nation.
The race would push each candidate to outdo the other in his support for coal, miners and the communities that rely on both.
Morrisey hasn’t committed to running, but he is considering entering the race and is likely to do so, people familiar with his thinking said.
Morrisey himself is more circumspect.
“Right now, my principal focus has to be being the best attorney general I could possibly be,” he told The Hill.
If Morrisey does run, he’ll face a number of obstacles, including potential Republican primary challengers, Manchin’s popularity in the state and the fact that Morrisey only moved to West Virginia just 11 years ago.
Morrisey frequently criticized and prodded Manchin on topics such as the senator’s advocacy for a fix to the pension program for former coal miners and his support for President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Sen. Manchin has made some contributions to the state, and there are other areas where I’d like to see more aggressive action,” Morrisey said.
He also slammed Manchin for supporting Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE in last year’s presidential election.
“I was deeply disappointed that Sen. Manchin so strongly endorsed Hillary Clinton, when she would have been such disaster for West Virginians,” he said.
Manchin, who has already announced his reelection bid, has continually shown a willingness to align with Trump and Republicans on policy issues important to the state.
Morrisey has taken the lead in a group of about two dozen Republican state attorneys general in suing Obama’s EPA to stop the Clean Power Plan and a related regulation for new power plants that would reduce the national demand for coal.
“It’s been one part of a number of factors that have caused significant job loss in West Virginia,” Morrisey said of the Clean Power Plan.
The rule has been on hold since early last year because of a Supreme Court order pushed for by Morrisey. Trump has pledged to repeal the Clean Power Plan, with Morrisey asking Trump to issue a first-day order telling the EPA to not enforce it.
Morrisey — or whoever wins the GOP primary — could be buoyed by an electorate that is rapidly turning more Republican. In 2016, Trump won the state by more than 40 percentage points over Clinton.
Jamie Van Nostrand, a professor at West Virginia University’s law school, said that Manchin is popular and has won numerous races for the Senate and governor. Still, he is facing a state that is becoming much more conservative.
“The state has gone really, really red,” Van Nostrand said. “And Morrisey’s done a good job of leading the charge for the coal industry against environmental regulations from the EPA.”
Trump won West Virginia last year with 68.7 percent of the vote, making it the reddest state in 2016. He ran in part on a promise to bring back coal-mining jobs, even as economic conditions like cheap natural gas and renewable energy competition make that unlikely.
Manchin, 69, has adapted to his state’s growing conservatism and has frequently sided with the GOP over Democrats on contentious issues.
While he acknowledges that climate change is caused by humans, he has stood alongside his Republican colleagues opposing EPA rules that hurt the coal industry.
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Morrisey publicly called on Manchin last month to support Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to lead the EPA. Manchin later met with Pruitt, who rejects mainstream climate science, and praised him as someone with “the right experience for the position.”
Manchin skipped Obama’s meeting last week with Democrats to try to save ObamaCare, choosing to meet instead with Vice President-elect Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence posts, deletes photo of Trump campaign staff without face masks, not social distancing Pence threatens to deploy military if Pennsylvania governor doesn’t quell looting Pence on Floyd: ‘No tolerance for racism’ in US MORE on the issue.
After Manchin praised Trump’s position on extending miners’ healthcare benefits, incoming White House counselor Kellyanne Conway returned the favor, tweeting that Manchin was an example of “putting peoples’ [sic] interests above politics.”
Morrisey, 49, grew up in New Jersey, where he launched an unsuccessful 2000 congressional bid. He only moved to West Virginia in 2006, making him vulnerable to a “carpetbagger” label that Manchin is likely to highlight.
Belinda Biafore, the chairwoman of West Virginia’s Democratic Party, said that Manchin welcomes a battle with Morrisey.
“Morrisey is just job shopping. He is an out-of-stater who finished dead last when he tried to run for Congress in New Jersey. Then, when he tried his hat at West Virginia governor, the GOP establishment pushed him out of the race because they don’t like him,” she continued.
“Now he is trying to get back to D.C., where he is right at home in the swamp. He spent more time living there than West Virginia, after all. He is an opportunist, plain and simple.”
Morrisey’s House bid ended in the primary, when he came in last of four Republicans with just 8.6 percent of the vote. He has also been a House Energy and Commerce Committee aide and worked at a law and lobbying firm in Washington, D.C., where his clients included drug companies.
In last year’s reelection campaign, Morrisey’s opponent Doug Reynolds repeatedly labeled him a “carpetbagger” and accused him of living part-time in the D.C. area.
Manchin, by contrast, was born and raised in West Virginia. His grandparents immigrated to the state, while his uncle was a state lawmaker.
Before Morrisey runs against Manchin, he’ll likely have to fight in a primary. One or more of the state’s three Republican House members, all Republicans, could enter the race.
Rep. Evan Jenkins, for one, says he might throw his hat in the ring.
“I’m getting lots of calls from folks back home encouraging me to run for the Senate in 2018,” he said. “I appreciate their support and will consider that possibility.”
Representatives of Reps. David McKinleyDavid Bennett McKinleyMLB, Congress play hardball in fight over minor leagues Koch campaign touts bipartisan group behind ag labor immigration bill ‘Minor league cities’ need new federal partnership MORE and Alex Mooney, two other potential GOP challengers for Manchin, did not respond to requests for comment. But Manchin himself expects that Morrisey won’t have the primary to himself.
Asked about a challenge from Morrisey, Manchin chuckled.
“He’ll have a crowded field,” he said.