Posted: April 26, 2018 at 1:59 pm

By Jaz Brown and Jon Ransone

Patrick Morrisey’s bid to capture the Republican nomination for West Virginia’s Senate race this year has been buoyed by thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from a number of very conservative out-of-state political action committees (PACs), according to recent filings to the Federal Election Commission. These PACs have also supported President Trump and Roy Moore, the unsuccessful Republican candidate for Alabama’s special Senate election last December.

As of March 31st this year, Morrisey, who is currently the state’s Attorney General, has raised a total of $400,000 more than Congressional representative Evan Jenkins R-WV 3rd district, who is also running in the Republican primary. Morrisey has raised a total of $1.8 million compared to Jenkins’ $1.4 million.

However, according to the most recent poll, the leading Republican candidates, Morrisey and Jenkins, are in a virtual tie for first place. Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, came in third at 12 percent, even though campaign filings show that he has raised the most money: $2 million, almost all of it his own money. 

Blankenship recently spent a year in federal prison after being convicted of conspiracy to violate mine safety and health standards. In 2010, 29 coal miners in the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by Massey Energy, were killed in an explosion.

According to the latest poll, which was commissioned in April by GOPAC, a Republican political action committee, 39 percent of likely Republican voters are still undecided with the state primary only a few weeks away on May 8. 

Some political strategists believe Jenkins is best suited to compete against Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in the general election come November.

“I would think that, given that Jenkins is a middle of the road [moderate], he probably could pull more Democrats than Blankenship or Morrisey,” says Tom Susman, President of TSG Consulting, a Charleston political consulting company. “Therefore, I think he’d probably be in a better position for the general election.”  

All three of the leading Republican candidates have baggage, however. In 2013, Jenkins was faulted by some for switching his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in order to successfully run against Nick Rahall, the Democratic Congressional representative from the 3rd district, the following year.

Morrisey has baggage to overcome as well. In 2016, when he ran again for State Attorney General, he was criticized for taking thousands of dollars from the same drug companies and drug wholesalers that flooded West Virginia with opioid drugs. Before moving to West Virginia from New Jersey in 2006, he was a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry and his wife currently serves as a lobbyist for several pharmaceutical clients as a partner of Capitol Counsel LLC.

Over the course of Morrisey’s current campaign for the Senate, he also received thousands of dollars from the drug industry trade group, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and more than 15 contributions from directors, CEOs and other executives at various pharmaceutical and healthcare companies around the country. These contributions have ranged between $500 and $2,700.

Top donors to Morrisey’s campaign also include several law firms with ties to the energy sector as well as Koch Industries, an oil and natural gas conglomerate owned by the Koch brothers who have spent millions over the years in fighting the science showing that climate change is human-made.

Three conservative and pro-Trump PACs have also contributed a total of $532,300 towards supporting Morrisey and attacking his opponents. Those PACs are the Restoration PAC, a conservative Super PAC; Senate Conservative Funds, which is aligned with the Tea Party; and Great America PAC, another conservative pro-Trump Super PAC.  The Restoration PAC, for instance, funded a video attacking Democratic Senator Joe Manchin.

In the last year, the Great America PAC spent slightly more than $5 million in support of candidates, including Morrisey, Donald Trump and Roy Moore. All of the candidates supported by Great America PAC  within the last year were also, at one point, endorsed by ex-White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

The Restoration PAC, Great America PAC and Senate Conservative Funds all share the same wealthy midwestern megadonor, Richard Uihlein, who owns ULine, a shipping and industrial supplies company, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A Morgantown based PAC, 35th Inc., which also received money from Uihlein, is a top donor to Morrisey’s campaign. The 35th Inc. PAC has also contributed thousands of dollars intended for for advertisements opposing Jenkins.

According to FEC records and the Center For Responsive Politics, the top industries contributing to Jenkins’s campaign are from the energy sector including mining, the health care sector, and banks and investment firms. Jenkins also received $369,200 from PAC contributions. 

All three of the leading Republican candidates have very similar views on gun control (they oppose almost all restrictions on the Second Amendment), abortion (they’re pro-life), and they support the Republican tax cuts. In 2015, Jenkins supported a ban on researching gun violence by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) while serving on the House Appropriations Committee.

Jenkins and Morrisey have tried to cast themselves in the mantle of pro-Trump Republicans. On the other hand, Blankenship has publicly admitted he disagrees with Trump on some issues. He has portrayed himself as a typical West Virginian, having grown up poor and worked his way up out of poverty.

“I think most observers think that the race will be reasonably close,” says Matthew Jacobsmeier, a professor of political science at West Virginia University. “Each of these candidates have some name recognition and they are not political novices in West Virginia.”