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West Virginia's General Election is Tuesday, November 3. WVPB will be covering the statewide races and offering NPR coverage of the national elections.

District 2: Incumbent Alex Mooney Faces Progressive Challenger Cathy Kunkel

Mooney/Kunkel mashup
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

The candidates vying for West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District – Republican Rep. Alex Mooney and Democrat Cathy Kunkel – are offering starkly different visions for the sprawling territory that zig-zags across the Mountain State’s middle, touching the Eastern Panhandle, the state’s capitol, Charleston, and even the Ohio River.

Mooney, who cut his political teeth as a lawmaker in Maryland, was first elected to Congress in West Virginia in 2014. The Charles Town resident and son of a Cuban refugee and Vietnam veteran faced a tough first election to win his seat, formerly held by now-U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.

The congressman, who is seeking his fourth term in office, did not agree to an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, but in an emailed statement aligned himself closely to the top of the Republican ticket: President Donald Trump.

“We have a unique opportunity right now with President Trump, and I want to go back with him and continue to defend our values and way of life,” he said.

Those values include protecting the Second Amendment, defending religious freedom, reducing taxes, protecting the right to life, and making sure coal is “here to stay.”

Mooney faces a challenge from political newcomer Cathy Kunkel. Kunkel has spent the last decade working in energy policy, including testifying in front of the West Virginia Public Service Commission as a consumer advocate. In 2014 during the Elk River water crisis, Kunkel emerged as one of the voices fighting for safe drinking water. By contrast, her vision for West Virginia is rooted in ensuring policies passed in Washington D.C. work for all West Virginians.

“I think we need leadership in D.C. that has been rooted in our communities that is listening to West Virginians, and is not afraid to stand up to special interests and fight for an economy that truly works for all of us and not just a wealthy few,” Kunkel said in an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Kunkel’s platform is rooted in her experience as a grassroots organizer and reflected in her tagline: “For the many, not the few.”

She is part of the progressive WV Can’t Wait movement and has pledged not to take corporate campaign donations. Kunkel also co-founded and chaired Rise Up WV, a Charleston-based volunteer organization that supports health care for all, quality public education and better services for those suffering from addiction. Her campaign has focused on accessibility — holding socially distant town halls across the district.

That accessibility is one reason Charleston resident Paul Epstein is supporting Kunkel.

“As I compare her to the person that she's running against, Alex Mooney, I have seen very little of him in public over the years,” he said. “He doesn't come around. He doesn't do public meetings. He doesn't answer questions. He seems to represent corporate interests and money interests, and does not seem to vote in favor of things that would help the people of West Virginia most of whom don't have a lot of resources and are struggling, working people.”

Mooney has had to answer questions about his status as an outsider, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Kondik said as West Virginia continues its shift toward being a safely Republican-voting state, Trump’s appeal -- he won the state in 2016 with 68.5 percent of the vote – will help give cover to other Republican candidates on the ticket.

“Mooney’s had to deal with questions about, you know, not really being from West Virginia, but at the same time, it doesn't seem like he's in any particular danger of losing,” he said.

An analysis by news prediction website fivethirtyeight.com, finds Mooney has voted in line with the president nearly 88 percent of the time. In October, during the impeachment proceedings against Trump, Mooney made headlines when he stormed into a secure room at the Capitol in protest.

One notable break from the Trump administration in his voting record was in March when he voted against the second COVID relief bill, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The $2 trillion bill provided pandemic food assistance and funded additional unemployment benefits.

In a floor speech, Mooney took issue with various aspects of that coronavirus relief package and its price tag.

“How do you pay for it?” he said. “We going to borrow it from China, borrow it from Russia?”

For Kunkel, the campaign is centered on those she would represent, if elected.

“West Virginia is really hurting right now,” she said. “Our economy is not working for the vast majority of West Virginians. Our health care system is broken. Public schools are underfunded. We lack basic infrastructure. And, you know, COVID has obviously made all of this worse.”

She said the Mountain State has an opportunity to reshape itself into something more equitable, as one of its key resources, coal, continues to decline. According to federal data, in 2019, coal production fell to its lowest level since 1978. The pandemic has further stressed the industry, pushing several companies into bankruptcy.

“We need to use this as an opportunity to repay the debt that the rest of the country owes to West Virginia for the coal and gas that have powered this country for such a long time,” she said. “We need to fight for billions of dollars of reinvestment in our state in basic infrastructure, in environmental reclamation, clean energy manufacturing, so that we can do this transition in a way that leaves our economy stronger here in West Virginia.”

It is yet another issue where the two candidates disagree. Mooney said he is, “fighting to make sure that coal is here to stay,” and praised Trump for protecting energy jobs.

Kunkel has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, AFT-West Virginia and the state AFL-CIO chapter. Mooney is backed by groups such as the NRA and West Virginians For Life.

No debate between the two candidates is currently planned.

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