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Some Thoughts Following the West Virginia Primary

All I can say about last Tuesday’s primaries is “wow.” I would have never thought that Rep. David McKinley would have lost by such a margin as he did to Rep. Alex Mooney in the 2nd Congressional District Republican race.

I typically keep my predictions out of this column and off public social media channels when it comes to election contests. But with the benefit of hindsight, I really thought it would be a close race but McKinley would win it.

Sure, Mooney has a larger population, especially in Berkeley, Jefferson, and Morgan counties, but McKinley had more of a geographic advantage. During redistricting, more of Mooney’s counties were put into the new southern 1st Congressional District, while much of McKinley’s counties were put into the new 2nd District.

I figured if more voters came out in McKinley’s counties, they could trump the Eastern Panhandle population advantage. But that didn’t happen.

According to the unofficial vote totals on the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, McKinley only won three out of 26 counties – Ohio County (where McKinley’s hometown of Wheeling is), Wetzel County, and Pleasants County. McKinley had a 28-point lead over Mooney in Ohio County, but only a 9-point lead in Wetzel and 1-point lead in Pleasants.

Mooney’s lead was narrow in several key McKinley counties: Mooney won Monongalia County by 36 votes. Same goes for Harrison County, where Mooney won by 61 votes, and Wood County where Mooney won again by 36 votes. Large vote totals in Mooney’s current 2nd District counties and narrow victories in key McKinley counties are how Mooney won. It was crucial for McKinley to carry his current 1st District counties and he didn’t.

Why? Why did a four-term congressman who moved to West Virginia from Maryland facing an ethics investigation beat a six-term West Virginia native, businessman, and senior Republican statesman? We could go through all the obvious reasons: the endorsement from former president Donald Trump, the onslaught of negative ads, McKinley’s vote for the failed version of the Jan. 6 Committee and the successful bipartisan infrastructure bill, yadda yadda yadda.

I think one reason for Mooney’s success that hasn’t really been raised is the overwhelming desire of voters in the Eastern Panhandle to have a representative. The Eastern Panhandle has been ignored by the West Virginia Legislature for the last couple of decades when it comes to redistricting, with most representatives coming from the Charleston area. That changed in 2014 with Mooney.

The Eastern Panhandle is the fastest growing region of the state. It’s home to many people from all over the U.S. who work in the Washington, D.C., metro area who choose to live in our state for lower taxes, a lower cost of living and the beautiful scenery. Mooney might have been the equivalent of an alien to people in the Western side of the state, but Mooney IS the Eastern Panhandle.

My hope for Mooney is that he doesn’t let the perception of being an absentee congressman follow him to North Central West Virginia, the Northern Panhandle and the Mid-Ohio Valley. My base of operations is Charleston, and most don’t feel he pays this area much attention. I understand Mooney bristles at that complaint. But looking at the overwhelming votes totals for Mooney in the new 2nd District, I suspect he sees a district that matches up better than the previous 2nd District.

Canvassing starts today in most counties with several statehouse primary races extremely close. Some of the closer races could really tip the balance in the West Virginia Legislature when it comes to the more standard textbook business-friendly conservatives versus the new and growing group of nationalist/populist conservative coalition.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and with the absence of effective Democratic Party opposition, you’re seeing in essence the creation of a two-party system within the West Virginia Republican Party. You saw some of these divisions show themselves within the state Senate Republican caucus last fall over COVID-19 and the drawing of the new senatorial redistricting map. You saw it in the House after more competent heads watered down the anti-critical race theory bill.

Depending on who wins after canvassing, I predict these fights will either get worse, or the nat-cons will gain the votes they need and it simply won’t matter. You’re going to see Republicans who only a few years ago were for more local control and less big government instead use big government to push through social changes. AEI scholar and friend Chris Stirewalt was on WV MetroNews Talkline Thursday raising similar concerns.

“I think the nationalists have it over the conservatives in West Virginias in a pretty profound way,” Stirewalt said. “I think the conservatives and moderates in West Virginia had better get real about what the nationalists mean to do and what it’s going to be like in the state Legislature.”


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