DemDaily: Justice Jumps Into Senate Race

April 28, 2023

Republican Governor Jim Justice announced his candidacy for the West Virginia US Senate race yesterday, upping the ante on one of 2024's most competitive contests in the ruby red state held by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.

While the Mountain State, which has voted with the Republican nominee in the last six presidential elections, will not be a factor in the race for the White House, it will play a critical role in control of the US Senate.

34 of the 100 United States Senate seats are up for election in 2024, with Democrats defending 23 seats, including three Independents that caucus with the Democrats. Republicans will be defending 11 seats, including one special election in Nebraska held concurrently with the regularly scheduled November 5, 2024 elections.

The rural, White working-class state, nestled in the heart of north-central Appalachia, was a Democratic stronghold from the New Deal through the 1990s, but has moved rapidly to the right in the last two decades -- awarding Donald Trump a 39-point victory in 2020.

The Incumbent
Senator Joe Manchin, the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation, was elected in 1982 at age 35 to the West Virginia House of Delegates and in 1986 to the State Senate. After a failed bid for the 1996 Democratic nomination for governor, he was elected Secretary of State in 2000, and Governor in 2004. He was reelected with 70% of the vote in 2008, and served as chair of both the National Governors Association and the Democratic Governors Association during his tenure.

Manchin was sworn into the US Senate in 2010 after winning the special election to fill the remaining term of the late nine-term Senator Bob Byrd (D), defeating businessman John Raese (R) 54%-43% in the general election. In a rematch with Raese in 2012, Manchin won election to his first full term, 60.7%-36.5%. He won reelection in 2018, defeating Republican West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey 49.6%-46.3%.

Manchin, a centrist Democrat, has emerged as perhaps the most influential member in a nearly evenly divided US Senate -- wielding a powerful swing vote over the outcome of major legislation and an outsized voice in the policy agendas of Congress and the White House.

To some, Manchin is a moderate icon for a party that has veered too far to the left, while others paint him as a progressive foil and threat to Biden's agenda, deeming him a Democrat-in-name-only. Manchin, who describes himself as "fiscally responsible and socially compassionate," says he is driven by a fundamental faith in bipartisanship. Regardless, he may be all that stands between Democrats and a Republican Senate majority.

Manchin has yet to announce his reelection campaign, but has said he will make a decision by the end of the year. He has also left the door open to a presidential bid.

The Challengers
The entrance of West Virginia's popular Republican Governor Jim Justice, who boasts a 64% approval rating, may be the deciding factor in Manchin's final decision.

Justice, whose first foray into politics was his successful 2016 campaign for Governor, has a net worth in excess of $500 million, and has served as the owner or chief executive officer of over 50 companies, including the Greenbrier, a luxury resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

He inherited coal mining businesses Bluestone Industries and Bluestone Coal Corporation from his father in 1993, which have since been scrutinized for alleged cases of safety violation and delinquent taxes.

According to a 2020 ProPublica investigation, over the last three decades Justice has paid more than $128 million in judgments and settlements over his businesses' unpaid bills from lawsuits filed in more than two dozen states.

Despite its now solidly red status, West Virginians had not elected a GOP Governor since Cecil Underwood in 1996. Justice, a registered Republican before running for governor, ran as a Democrat in 2016, defeating the Republican nominee, Bill Cole 49.9% to 42.30%.

Seven months after taking office, however, he switched back to the Republican Party, announcing his plans at an August 2017 rally with then-President Donald Trump. In the 2020 gubernatorial race, Justice was handily reelected over Democratic challenger Ben Salango by more than 33 points.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) played an active role in recruiting Justice, who is considered most viable in the projected May 14 primary but is far from assured of victory.

Justice faces a competitive primary against right-wing Freedom Caucus Congressman Alex Mooney, who has the backing of the conservative Club for Growth which has vowed to spend at least $10 million on the race. Mooney, who entered the race in November 22 and is expected to run to the right of Justice, is a five-term Congressman who represents northern West Virginia.

His political career began in Maryland, where he served in the State Senate from 1999 to 2011 and as chair of the Maryland Republican Party from 2011-2013. Not long after moving to Charles Town, West Virginia in 2013, he declared his candidacy for the state's 2nd Congressional District, successfully winning the seat being vacated by Shelley Moore Capito to run for the US Senate in 2014.

Mooney was reelected four times by wide margins, including in 2022, where he defeated fellow GOP Congressman David McKinley after redistricting pitted them against each other in the primary. He won the general election by more than 30 points.

In December 2021, the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) determined that Mooney had "likely violated House rules and federal law" by accepting impermissible gifts for travel and lodging, and for using official resources and staff for personal purposes. The OCE referred the report to the House Ethics Committee, which opened an investigation into Mooney's conduct in May 2022. It remains unresolved.

Democrats are counting on a bitter and expensive primary fight to weaken and expose both Justice and Mooney in advance of the general election battle. Both are also expected to vie for the support of Trump, who endorsed each in their previous elections.

The last published poll, conducted February 5-7, 2023 by Republican polling firm Tarrance Group for McConnell's Senate Leadership Fund, showed Justice leading Manchin 52% to 42% in a head-to-head race, while Manchin led Mooney 55% to 40% (MOE: ± 4.1%).

Related
DemDaily: Update on the Senate Landscape 3/16/23

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