Robert Rupp: Fight for senate seat may be Christmas in July for Manchin (Gazette)

By By Robert Rupp
Robert Rupp

Christmas in July? The West Virginia Democratic Party may well celebrate the Yuletide holiday early if GOP provides them with a prospect of a contested Senatorial primary in 2018.

As recently as a decade ago, the idea of a contentious Republican primary was unthinkable given the weak state GOP. Since 1932, the party had trouble finding statewide candidates for the November general elections, let alone worry about contests in the May primaries.

The exception was 1988 when John Raese unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Arch Moore and divided an already weakened Republican party.

Now almost 30 years later Raese could be involved in a three-way GOP primary fight to select the Republican nominee to oppose U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin in November of 2018.

That race will be one of the closely watched in the nation since it features the Senate’s lightest blue member running for re-election in one of the deepest red states in the nation.

Sen. Manchin’s chances in November 2018 will depend to a large extent not only on who will be his opponent, but also on how competitive the GOP senatorial primary in May will be.

Already announced for the nomination is a former Democrat, Evan Jenkins, the recently elected Congressman from the state’s 3rd district. His district is undergoing one of the nation’s largest partisan turnovers as Democrats in the district counties are registering in record numbers as Republicans. Jenkins, in this regard, was simply going with the flow when he transferred allegiance to the GOP in a region where some counties had party registrations that for decades exceeded 5-1 Democrat.

Unlike the recent Republican Jenkins, Raese’s roots in the West Virginia party go back decades. Besides serving as party chairman, he ran for the U.S. Senate four times. The first was in 1984 when after being outspent 10-1, he almost defeated Gov. Jay Rockefeller’s effort to be U.S. Senator.

Taking in account that 1984 race, the Morgantown industrialist and media owner has the distinction of losing Senate races to three different Democrats in three different decades : Gov.Rockefeller-1984/Sen. Robert C. Byrd-2006 /Gov. Joe Manchin-2010 and 2012)

Besides having long standing GOP credentials, Raese can play the Trump card. In a state that supported Donald Trump by almost 70 percent (the second highest in the nation), Raese can argue that he was Trump supporter before Trump ran for office. After all, Sarah Palin campaigned for him in his 2010 Senate race.

As a primary candidate, Raese would have both the motivation and money to not only advance this argument to party members, but also fund negative attacks on Jenkins voting record as a Democrat in the state Legislature.

Complicating the 2018 May primary contest even more is the entrance of Republican Attorney-General Patrick Morrisey. Starting his political career in New Jersey where he was unsuccessful in a 2000 Congressional primary contest, Morrisey crossed state lines and later defeated five-term Attorney General Darrell McGraw in 2012.

The defeat of McGraw of Wyoming County by Morrisey of Jefferson County illustrated the emerging political power of the Eastern Panhandle counties and decreasing influence of the southern counties in statewide elections.

The Eastern Panhandle is the future of West Virginia politics, and the GOP domination of that region suggests bad tidings to Sen. Joe Manchin’s re-election.

Along with Arch Moore, Sen. Manchin is the most effective campaigner the state has seen in the last 150 years. But there is only so far that good campaigning can accomplish in a political landscape that has witnessed the collapse of the Democratic Party in West Virginia and the embrace of Trump by state voters.

The best chance for the incumbent senator next year lies not in the halls of Washington D.C. or the hallows of West Virginia, but in a competitive GOP senatorial primary among three strong candidates.

Such a scenario could witness a heated contest with Raese attacking the party credentials of Jenkins and Morris poised to win majorities in the panhandle.

A contentious and well financed primary fight would be an early yuletide gift for West Virginia’s incumbent Democrat Senator as the recently revived Republican party in West Virginia would learn the perils of having a strong bench.

Robert Rupp is a political history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College and a Gazette contributing columnist.

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