Patrick Morrisey runs for the Senate in a politically transformed West Virginia
On the Fourth of July, as Patrick Morrisey marched down Main Street with supporters who waved red-white-and-blue placards for his Senate campaign, someone on a porch shouted at him: “New Jersey!” It was a putdown — an accusation that Morrisey doesn’t deserve a place in West Virginia’s public life because he grew up somewhere else. The winner of two statewide elections for attorney general, Morrisey heard the remark, smiled, and waved. Then he continued to move along the parade route, in an event that the town of Ripley (population 3,231) calls “America’s Largest Small Town Independence Celebration.” President George W. Bush came here in 2002, on the first Independence Day after 9/11, and each year it attracts politicians from around the state, including Morrisey’s opponent in this fall’s general election: Democratic senator Joe Manchin, who walked a few hundred yards ahead of him.
Manchin appears to lead in the polls, too. He holds a seven-point advantage over Morrisey among likely voters, according to the latest survey, conducted by Monmouth University (which, coincidentally, is located in New Jersey). Morrisey may be the underdog, but he’s likely to catch up and turn his race into one of the most watched Senate contests of 2018, as Republicans try to defend their slim majority in the chamber by gaining a seat now held by a Democrat in deepest Trump country. On July 3, in fact, President Trump traveled to a resort in West Virginia to deliver a speech in conjunction with “A Military Tribute at the Greenbrier,” a golf tournament. There, he praised Morrisey as “a tough, strong guy” who “loves the people of West Virginia.” The next day in Ripley, Morrisey wore a blue shirt and a red hat, both featuring the tribute tournament’s logo — and talked, with everybody who wanted to hear, about seeing the president.
“I’m an accidental West Virginian,” says the 50-year-old Morrisey, a Brooklyn native who moved to New Jersey as a kid and attended Rutgers University all the way through law school. In 2000, he ran for Congress in New Jersey but finished a distant fourth in the GOP primary. “That was a tough business,” he says. “It made me more humble.” He migrated down to Washington, D.C., anyway, working on a House committee and then as a lobbyist. In 2006, he moved to Harpers Ferry, W.Va. For capital commuters, that’s a long slog. To beat the traffic, he often left his house before sunrise. Morrisey says he wanted to live there because of the area’s history and natural beauty. “Politics was really the furthest thing from my mind,” he says.
Yet he benefited from good timing, as West Virginia was in the throes of a political transformation. For most of the 20th century, it was one of the country’s most heavily unionized and solidly Democratic states. By 2000, it hadn’t voted for a Republican in an open presidential race since it had favored Herbert Hoover more than 70 years earlier. George W. Bush, however, sensed an opportunity. He thought that the state’s culturally conservative voters, annoyed by regulatory attacks on the coal industry, would turn against Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, who sought to make environmentalism his party’s central organizing principle. Bush courted the state and snatched its five electoral votes. Without them, he would have lost the general election and the Florida recount wouldn’t have mattered. Over the next several election cycles, Republicans became increasingly competitive in West Virginia, taking near-complete control of the state’s politics during the presidency of Barack Obama, another Democrat whose energy policies discouraged coal production.
Morrisey became a key figure in the realignment. “When Obama got elected in 2008, something changed,” he says, referring to the attitudes of West Virginians as well as his own ambitions. Although he was still new to the state and lived in its extreme northeast corner, he believed he fit right in: “I always thought that the Republicans were the party of the working man because their policies inspired work.” In 2012, he ran for attorney general against Darrell McGraw, a Democrat whose nickname was “the eternal general” because he had held the job for two decades. Morrisey prevailed with 51 percent of the vote. Four years later, he coasted to reelection.
As attorney general, Morrisey has made his mark by suing the federal government, over and over again. “We took on fights that nobody else was taking on,” he says. “But we had the authority and duty to act.” Morrisey sued the Department of Health and Human Services over Obamacare (and lost). He sued the Drug Enforcement Administration over opioids (pending). And he sued the Environmental Protection Agency repeatedly, scoring a big win in 2016 when the Supreme Court halted the Obama administration’s plans to limit carbon emissions. “It was trying to put an end to coal mining,” he says. “That goes to the very soul of our state. We saved thousands of jobs and stopped an unbelievable power grab.”
This ruling — a surprise, because the Court is often reluctant to block federal regulations — shined a spotlight on Morrisey’s work. Six months into his second term as attorney general, he announced his run for the Senate. This spring, the Republican primary drew unexpected attention, thanks largely to the antics of another candidate: Don Blankenship, a former coal-company executive who spent a year in prison for violating mine-safety rules. In a monotone television ad, Blankenship berated Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, mentioning his “China family” and dubbing him “Cocaine Mitch.” The lines referred to his wife, the Taiwan-born secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, and an outlandish claim about her family’s business connections. Egged on by journalists who savored a controversial GOP candidate, Blankenship briefly worried Republicans that in a three-way race, he might split mainstream voters and swipe the nomination. Trump got involved, tweeting that West Virginians should support either Morrisey or congressman Evan Jenkins. In the May 8 primary, Morrisey finished first with 35 percent of the vote. Blankenship came in third with 20 percent but nevertheless was the subject of headlines around the country. To many in the media, the story was “Blankenship loses” rather than “Morrisey wins.”
Today, Morrisey shrugs off the weird theatrics of the primary, preferring to focus on the next election, in November. “West Virginia needs a conservative fighter,” he says. “Right now, as an attorney general, I can sue when regulations are unlawful. In the Senate, I can go after stupid ones as well. I want to tear down the excesses of the administrative state.” He’s quick to mention that he’s pro-life and pro-gun, both popular causes in his state. He supported the recent tax cuts. He also speaks with candor about the farm bill, now before Congress. Although about 15 percent of West Virginians use food stamps, he believes the federal government should expand the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s work requirements.
He refuses to take a sharp position on Trump’s metal tariffs and the emerging trade wars. “It’s important to step back for a minute,” he says. “This president is trying to look out for the best interests of the American people and trying to gain a little negotiating leverage. That’s not a bad thing.”
At least some of this hesitation comes from a reluctance to criticize the president, who may be more popular in West Virginia than he is in any other state. In 2016, Trump carried it by a whopping 42 points. During his 18 months in the White House, he has visited the state five times, compared with Obama’s three visits in eight years. Morrisey’s unwillingness also suggests that in the scrambled politics of the Trump era, the usual rules of midterm elections, in which the president’s party suffers a blow in legislative races, may not apply in West Virginia. “The dynamic is different here,” says Morrisey. “The ‘Trump card’ could be the difference in the race. If he comes out to campaign, he’ll generate enthusiasm and turnout.” It’s easy to imagine a Trump rally in which the president leads a chant of “Joe’s gotta go!” — a refrain that Morrisey urges on voters at every opportunity.
Joe Manchin, of course, won’t go down easily. Since 2000, as other Democrats have fallen in West Virginia, he has won five statewide elections, all by healthy margins. He’s the rare Democrat who is essentially pro-life and pro-gun, though Morrisey points to a few discrepancies, such as Manchin’s approval of spending bills that fund Planned Parenthood and his sponsorship of legislation to expand background checks for gun sales. Manchin has supported many parts of Trump’s agenda, from trade protectionism to cabinet and judicial appointments, including the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch. In June, he even said he regrets his vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and may back Trump’s reelection in 2020. Morrisey thinks this is nonsense: “He’ll say the right things and vote the right way until the election.”
When Morrisey talks about his fondness for Harpers Ferry, the town that originally drew him to his new home state, he observes that during the Civil War it changed hands between the North and the South seven times. That’s how his Senate race may go: a back-and-forth battle whose result remains unclear until the very end. Ultimately, the election could come down to a simple matter of whether voters want to stick with an old friend, in an expression of small-“c” conservatism, or prefer a Jersey boy who seeks to continue West Virginia’s new birth of politics.