WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS – Two analysts and a pollster put their heads together Friday to tease out what could happen and who will win West Virginia’s 2018 U.S. Senate election.
Unveiling polling data to a dwindling crowd on the last day of the state Chamber of Commerce’s 81st annual Meeting and Business Summit, Rex Repass of Research America Inc. said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has double-digit leads on two potential head-to-head challengers. Manchin has a 10-point advantage over U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and a 14-point lead on state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who are both running for the seat as Republicans.
According to his data, 51 percent of the 400 likely voters surveyed approved of the job Manchin is doing as a senator.
However, given Manchin’s lengthy career of public service, Repass cautioned the lead could suggest a vulnerability, leaving a bigger gap to be desired. That said, he mentioned Manchin served as a two-term governor, has grown more popular since 2013, and has a deep understanding of voters in the state, all of which will help him in a general election.
On the other hand, Repass’ data shows 47 percent of respondents would like to see a Republican Congress, compared to 36 percent who would like to see a Democratic one.
The poll did not include data on activist Paula Jean Swearengin, who is running against Manchin in the Democratic primary, or laid-off coal miner Bo Copley, who will run against Jenkins and Morrisey in the Republican primary.
Offering a more qualitative and, by his own admission, not purely objective approach, Bill Bissett, president and CEO of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce and former president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said though he doesn’t know how the race will end, it will probably be one of the most closely watched Senate races in the country.
He said he conducted 100 interviews with people he considered to have influential political opinions across the political spectrum and around the state geographically. He then laid out his findings to the crowd.
Manchin, Bissett said, has his West Virginia roots, likability and bipartisan footing working in his favor. However, his ties to Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama, and his affiliation as a Democrat could harm him in November.
Bissett said while Jenkins is a likable candidate and high-energy campaigner, he too has his baggage. He pointed to Jenkins’ switch from the Democratic Party and a perception that he is too loyal to the Republican Party, odd bedfellows that could harm him in both a primary and general election.
Morrisey has a good reputation of supporting the coal industry and serving as an attorney general, Bissett said. However, he could be weighed down by his New Jersey and New York roots, his ties to the pharmaceutical industry as a lobbyist, and an overly-aggressive campaign style.
During his speech, Bissett disclosed he has volunteered for Manchin in the past, has been friends with Jenkins for years and hosted a fundraiser for Morrisey.
Potentially throwing a wrench in either candidate’s plans, Bissett noted that while Republican or Democratic Party candidates must file to run by Jan. 27, 2018, third-party candidates can file as late as Aug. 1, 2018, months after the primary. To do so, they would need signatures from 1 percent of the total number of voters in the last Senate election.
Given mumblings of a bid from coal magnate Don Blankenship or frequent Senate candidate John Raese, either could siphon votes in the general election, he said.
“August 1, the entire race could change,” he said.
Putting it all together, Bissett said beating Manchin would be difficult but attainable, and the race will be fascinating to watch.
“So may the best candidate win, and I can tell you from the polling I did and the people I’ve talked to, Senator Manchin will be very hard to beat, but he can be beaten,” he said.
Along with Repass and Bissett, Brian Dayton, communications manager for the state Chamber of Commerce, gave a rundown of how West Virginia’s politics drifted to the right from 2000 onward at both the state and federal level.
He said though 2014 is marked as the election that turned the tide in West Virginia, as much had been creeping on for years.
By his guess, Gov. Jim Justice, President Donald Trump and a growing wave of populism in the country could all be deciding factors when West Virginians cast their ballots in 2018.
Reach Jake Zuckerman at email@example.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.