All six Republican candidates for U.S. Senate squared off Monday night in Wheeling during an hour and a half long debate as they aim for a seat in the U.S. Senate. The candidates made mention of their affinity for President Donald Trump while heavily criticizing Democrat incumbent Joe Manchin.
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who served a one-year federal prison sentence for conspiring to violate mine safety standards in the wake of the Upper Big Branch explosion in April 2010, began his opening statements by describing himself as an “active conservative” in West Virginia politics since the mid-1980s -- supporting Republican candidates for state supreme court and the Legislature.
Later in the debate, Blankenship spoke about the mine explosion, maintaining he was not responsible for the incident.
“The UBB tragedy and the aftermath, I think, it's actually going to help me in this election in the coalfields -- because coal miners know what really happened,” Blankenship said. “The government cut the air flow shortly before the explosion and that it was a natural gas and not a coal dust explosion. But the biggest thing is that I'm going to focus on preventing it from happening again.”
Three separate investigations pointed to faulty equipment and a build-up of explosive coal dust as the cause. Last week, attorneys for Blankenship motioned to have his conviction vacated.
One of the former coal baron’s opponents is from Mingo, Blankenship’s home county. Bo Copley gained attention during the 2016 presidential election cycle when Hillary Clinton made a campaign stop in Williamson. Copley made note of the similarities between he and the other candidates in the race, while maintaining his working class status gives him appeal to voters.
“One of the biggest common denominators that we have is that each one of us want to have the opportunity to unseat Senator Manchin. For the last 20 or 30 years, there's probably not been a larger, more looming political image in West Virginia than that of Senator Manchin,” Copley said. “And you have to find someone who's the exact opposite of him.”
Congressman Evan Jenkins, who along with West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has the been the target of Duty and Country -- a Super PAC -- addressed those recent attacks by acknowledging his affinity for Trump, but also calling out high-level national Democrats.
“I'm an unapologetic supporter of Donald Trump. What the voters in West Virginia are saying, though, ought to tell you everything you need to know over the last few days. Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and their dark money PACs have been pushing tens of thousands -- literally hundreds of thousands of dollars -- into West Virginia. It's when the Democrats are trying to beat you in a primary -- that ought to tell you something,” Jenkins said.
Morrisey used some of his time during the debate to tout his accolades as a litigator against Obama-era policies and his support of President Trump’s environmental deregulation efforts, as well as stricter immigration policy.
“I think Joe Manchin has utterly failed our state over the last number of years beyond being wrong about Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He stood by as the Obama administration tried to run roughshod over our way of life,” Morrisey said.
“Over the last five years I've been more aggressive going after Obama era overreach than anyone on the stage. I'm the one that assembled the 27 state coalition to protect coal jobs going all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and helping to ensure that the unlawful waters of the United States rule went down. I've fought illegal amnesty and won,” he added.
Political newcomer Jack Newbrough is a U.S. Navy veteran and truck driver from Weirton. Stating simply that he doesn’t disagree on any issue when it comes to President Trump, Newbrough touted his ability to connect with everyday West Virginians as his main strength -- saying that he often drives to candidate events in his semi.
While all of the GOP Senate candidates said they strongly support the Second Amendment, the way in which Newbrough demonstrated his support took some in the crowd off guard.
“I'm carrying right now,” he told the crowd. “I don't carry from my own personal use. I carry it for everybody in here.”
Newbrough’s thoughts on how to combat the growing opioid crisis struck many in the crowd as unconventional. He called for a highly controversial interrogation technique, which many consider to be a form of illegal torture.
“Catching the dealers and the pushers -- I'd like to take them out back and waterboard them. That might not be the right thing to say, but I think that's a start in a direction to get it taken care of,” he said.
Newbrough will face another newcomer in the primary -- businessman and National Guardsman Tom Willis from Martinsburg. In offering support to President Trump and his administration’s policies, Willis likened himself to Trump as a political outsider.
“I support the president. Let's be clear. But I don't give anybody a blank check. The president is a political outsider. He's a non-politician. He works for what he thinks is in the best interest of our country. And that's why I support him,” Willis said. “The only blank check that I give is to the people of West Virginia. I gave them a blank check when I raised my right hand to serve in military uniform as a member of the West Virginia National Guard.”
With candidates spending the evening expressing policy positions on everything from immigration to guns to coal to opioids, debate moderator Mike Myer ended the evening on a soft note.
“I am only sorry that I did not get time to ask the last question on my list which was: Would you please say something nice about Joe Manchin? But I'm sorry. I'm sorry we're out of time,” Myer deadpanned.
Manchin faces his own challenger in the Democratic primary from yet another political newcomer, Paula Jean Swearengin. West Virginia’s primary election for both parties is scheduled for Tuesday, May 8.