WASHINGTON — It’s exactly what he’s been waiting for.
Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., wished Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., would try and stop him. Walking down a hallway March 30 in the U.S. Capitol Complex on the way to the floor of the House of Representatives chamber for a few votes, Mooney predicted a Manchin endorsement of his opponent, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., would be the cherry on top of a hard-fought campaign.
Mooney got what he needed just a little more than a week ago after Manchin cut a 30-second television ad, dubbed “The Right Choice,” calling on West Virginians to support McKinley, whom the senator described as a champion of bipartisanship.
“Alex Mooney has proven he’s all about Alex Mooney. But West Virginians know David McKinley is all about us,” Manchin said.
The importance of endorsements varies, but one is particularly coveted in this primary fight. Former President Donald Trump has called on his supporters to send Mooney back to Washington and retire what he labels a fake Republican in McKinley.
A focal point in the race is the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed late last year. That legislation is the main component in features written within the last month in Politico, The Washington Post and Atlantic. These national media stories describe a lifelong West Virginian in McKinley casting a once-in-a-lifetime vote and scrambling afterward to show West Virginians the law can improve their livelihoods.
Sitting recently in his Washington office, McKinley said his vote in favor of the infrastructure bill cost him Trump’s endorsement. Trump’s team called him before the vote, McKinley said, and vowed they’d back Mooney if he helped give President Joe Biden a political win. Biden needed McKinley’s vote after some House progressives withdrew their support. McKinley joined 12 other House Republicans voting in favor.
McKinley said his opponent and other bad-faith actors have worked tirelessly to conflate the infrastructure bill with Biden’s original Build Back Better social spending proposal. West Virginians are inherently skeptical about grand promises — nearly $6 billion pledged to the Mountain State for a host of infrastructure upgrades — so McKinley said he’s been doing his best to show people what the law will actually do. That money is guaranteed to come here, he said — it’s not a situation where a private sector company comes in and promises the moon and stars only to leave the state or downsize shortly afterward.
“I think they’re overwhelmed with the amounts of money that are going into this. There’s skepticism, or cynicism, because [people like Mooney] are saying, ‘That’s all good, but it’s got this other stuff in it,’” McKinley said. “There is no other thing. It’s all infrastructure.”
Mooney contends his vote against the bill makes West Virginians proud. There’s $5 billion in the bill for building electric vehicle charging stations. That’s something no real Republican would support, Mooney said. And no legitimate fiscal conservative would support bringing back earmarks, he said.
“I don’t think we should be doing earmarks. I don’t think politicians should make those decisions,” Mooney said. He’s the only one in West Virginia’s five-member congressional delegation who did not submit earmark requests this year.
One of only two engineers in Congress, McKinley said he’s waited his whole career to get something like this done. He said he’s tired of the ‘D’ and ‘F’ ratings West Virginia’s infrastructure receives from the American Society of Civil Engineers, of which he’s a member.
The body of former Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, was lying in state in the Capitol as McKinley dropped by to pay his respects. Young and McKinley were two of the 13 ‘yea’ votes on the infrastructure bill. McKinley said Young, a staunch conservative who served Alaska for 43 years in the House before dying March 18, held the same philosophy about getting big things done for your state when everything was on the line.
“Don Young — he wouldn’t play politics. That’s what I loved about the guy,” McKinley said. “He just cut through right to the chase, just, ‘This is good for Alaska.’ And I told him, ‘It’s good for West Virginia’ — because that’s what it all comes down to.”
Mooney said: “Bankrupting our country is not good for West Virginia.”
The next two yearsIt would take a miracle, or six, for control of the House not to fall into Republicans’ hands after the 2022 midterm elections. Mooney said he sees that as the opening to finally turn the faucet off on the Biden administration.
“My main goal as a congressman isn’t to go create a whole bunch of government walls,” Mooney said. “Killing bad laws is a good thing.”
McKinley said he’ll be in line for a House Energy subcommittee chairmanship if House Republicans take over. If he’s reelected, McKinley said, West Virginians would be in an agenda-setting position when it comes to accountability as the infrastructure bill rolls out across America.
“Think about what a profound effect that could have on West Virginia. The committee chairman sets the agenda. We decide what bills we’re going to vote on,” he said.
McKinley spent a good amount of a day in the Capitol recently with his head buried in a stack of papers. Some companies are looking to price-gouge the country for construction materials after the passage of the infrastructure bill — the cost of plastic pipe was up 200%, PVC pipe was up 227% and copper pipe was up 167%. McKinley wants to bring these company executives in for a hearing and demand answers. He said this is the arena where he thrives and Mooney knows nothing.
“I’m staying on policy because you don’t get things done if you just oppose something,” he said.
McKinley said he gets the results, while Mooney is just about rhetoric.
“How are we going to have better sewer and water lines? How are we going to get better broadband? How are we getting better roads by voting no,” McKinley said.
Mooney said there is no win for West Virginians when Biden wins. He’s long held himself up as the conservative brawler, pledging his loyalty to the right-wing House Freedom Caucus, which is staunchly anti-Democrat. Mooney said McKinley and his fellow “liberal Republicans” are ignoring voters when they reach across the aisle.
“What I’m hearing from voters is they want to stop that. They want somebody to fight back,” Mooney said. “Voters want to know who’s really going to fight for them. Who’s the real conservative? Who’s the one that’s going to fight back?”
The campaignGreg Thomas, a Republican political operative who’s worked for two decades on elections in West Virginia, said the McKinley-Mooney race is a rare example of campaigns actually determining the winner and loser.
“There’s a small percentage of the time where actually how good your campaign is matters,” Thomas said.
Both camps boast strong campaigning resumés, Thomas said. They both have messaged well in the past and both have run quality campaigns this cycle, he said. Thomas said McKinley likely had the early advantage in the race, given the geography of the district and his knowledge of the state, but Trump’s endorsement of Mooney “was a really big bump.”
The new 2nd Congressional District includes strongholds for both incumbents. The river valleys from Wheeling to Parkersbrug will come in strong for McKinley, Thomas said, while Mooney will mop up in the Eastern Panhandle.
“They’re sort of fighting over the middle ground,” Thomas said.
Thomas predicted a strong turnout among Republicans in the district. He also said he believed the race would be competitive until Election Day.
A MetroNews poll of 350 likely Republican and independent voters found 48% in favor of Mooney, 33% for McKinley and 13% undecided. McKinley has a 16-point lead over Mooney in the Northern Panhandle, but he’s nowhere near closing the gap in the Eastern Panhandle, according to the polling.
Political analysts and insiders have called this primary a bellwether since the beginning — a test of the staying power of old-guard Republicans versus the new-school strength of candidates like Mooney.
Gov. Jim Justice stumped for McKinley last week, holding a jobs creation announcement in the Northern Panhandle. Justice endorsed McKinley early and said last week Trump made a mistake by supporting his opponent. Justice said he’d never really seen Mooney before. The Mooney campaign provided four documented meetings between the two.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has stayed out of this primary fight but consistently has credited McKinley for his work in passing the infrastructure bill. She also backed it. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., has declined to support either of her colleagues.
Mooney, 50, said he takes comfort in knowing he’s firmly the anti-establishment candidate as Manchin and Justice rush in to prop up McKinley at the finish line. After a one-hour meeting with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort, Mooney said, he earned the former president’s endorsement. He said it wasn’t based solely on the infrastructure vote.
“There’s a reason Trump endorsed me,” Mooney said.
As for their current working relationship, when the two got near each other on the House floor for votes on March 30, there was no love lost. Mooney walked down the middle aisle past McKinley’s regular seating spot, turned back around toward him and kept walking without making eye contact. In his earlier years, Mooney said, he might have grabbed the open seat next to him, but not after this bitter primary.
“I don’t sit with David anymore,” Mooney said. “He’s lied about me all over TV.”
McKinley, 75, said he has a job to finish.
“I’ve devoted my entire political career working for West Virginia. This is not a stepping stone,” he said.
Political analysts and insiders see a clear path for Mooney to take Manchin’s Senate seat from him in 2024, if he can just survive 2022.
“We’re both conservatives,” McKinley said. “It’s a question of — I’m seventh generation. I didn’t just move to West Virginia. This is something I feel passionate about. I bleed it.”
Since 1981, McKinley said, he’s attended every West Virginia University football game, sitting in the same seat. He said this is loyalty a politician like Mooney would never understand.