The 2018 Senate race in West Virginia could test the theory that competition is good in politics.
Republicans are hoping that a hard-fought primary contest does not hamper their chances of thwarting Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, from winning a second full term in the midterm elections.
Democrats, meanwhile, want the Republican fight between Rep. Evan H. Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to get even uglier. A bloodbath in the Republican primary race, which also includes Bo Copley, would increase Democrats’ chances of defending Mr. Manchin’s Senate seat.
Donald Trump won the Mountaineer State in a landslide in the presidential election last year.
“It is a feeding frenzy that started quick and looks like it still has room to grow,” said Jefrey Pollock, a spokesman for the Manchin campaign. “It started off nasty, and I doubt it will get any friendlier.”
But Conrad Lucas, head of the West Virginia Republican Party, said competition will only strengthen the party as it prepares for the midterm races.
“We are a state that has run rapidly to the right and become rapidly Republican, and we still have one liberal senator, and he will be defeated handily by our nominee come next November,” Mr. Conrad said. “We were the most pro-Trump state, but to put that in context, Donald Trump received more support than any other presidential candidate in history. The closest second was Abe Lincoln, who created the state.”
The Republican field in West Virginia could get more crowded as businessman John Raese and Don Blankenship, a former coal company CEO, are giving the race a look.
Republicans also are gearing up for a potential hard-nosed matchup in Indiana, where Rep. Luke Messer and Rep. Todd Rokita are considering bids against Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly and have already exchanged jabs.
“Todd Rokita wants to run for the U.S. Senate, and it is clear that he will do and say almost anything to advance his political career,” Mr. Messer said in an email blast Monday. “Apparently, truth or integrity won’t get in the way.”
Mr. Rokita, meanwhile, has accused Mr. Messer of not living in the state. He also has said that his fundraising prowess makes him the “only potential candidate who can defeat liberal Joe Donnelly.”
Mr. Donnelly and Mr. Manchin are among the five most vulnerable senators in the midterm races, according to Insider Elections.
The race in West Virginia heated up this month after Mr. Morrisey announced he was running against Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Copley, setting up the state’s first competitive Republican primary in modern history.
The Jenkins campaign responded by warning that his rival was a “profiteer — not a Mountaineer” and highlighted Mr. Morrisey’s background as a Washington lobbyist and a failed congressional candidate in New Jersey.
“Morrisey spent two decades swimming in the D.C. swamp as a congressional staffer turned lobbyist, making millions of dollars by trading on influence and shilling for big special interests — and throwing conservative principles to the wayside,” said Andy Sere, a Jenkins campaign strategist.
“He’s retained that out-for-himself mentality to this day, ignoring pleas from longtime GOP leaders to serve out his four-year term as attorney general instead of handing his seat to an appointed Democrat,” he said. “That’s how desperate he is to get back to the D.C. swamp that made him rich.”
Mr. Morrisey has cast himself as the true conservative in the race.
“It’s very difficult for Evan Jenkins to present himself as a viable alternative to Sen. Joe Manchin when Jenkins supported the same disastrous policies and candidates as Sen. Manchin, including cap-and-trade, Obamacare-style legislation and Hillary Clinton — not to mention Joe Manchin himself,” said Nachama Soloveichik, a Morrisey spokeswoman.
“Patrick Morrisey is the only candidate in this race that has stood up to Obama, fought for our gun rights and protected coal,” she said.
A pro-Morrisey political action committee called 35th PAC also has attacked Mr. Jenkins, saying he is “too much like Joe Manchin to be the strong opponent.”
Mr. Jenkins announced his Senate bid in May. He has represented West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District in Congress since he defeated Rep. Nick Rahall in the 2014 election — bringing the curtain down on the Democrat’s 38-year tenure in the southern part of the state.
Mr. Jenkins won re-election in November by nearly 44 percentage points. Mr. Morrisey won re-election by almost 10 percentage points and in February became chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association, which is dedicated to electing Republicans to the office of attorney general.
Mr. Morrisey has won endorsements from the West Virginia Civil Defense League, West Virginians for Life and 32 members of the state Legislature.