- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 7, 2017

He’s often Republicans’ best Democratic friend in the Senate, but Sen. Joe Manchin III also sits in a deeply red state — making him a top target for a new high-powered Republican political action committee seeking to boost their party’s chances going into next year’s elections.

Phil Cox, a former executive director of the Republican Governors Association, is launching the super PAC to channel the efforts against Mr. Manchin and to try to clear a path for state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who’s seeking the seat.

“Sen. Manchin is out of touch with the people of West Virginia,” said Leonardo Alcivar, an adviser for the group dubbed 35th PAC. “West Virginia needs a clean break from the Manchin-Obama era. That candidate is Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.”

Mr. Morrisey could have to survive a primary first, with Rep. Evan Jenkins thought to be laying the groundwork for a run. He has $1 million in his campaign account, according to his latest filing with the Federal Election Commission.

Conrad Lucas, head of the West Virginia Republican Party, said Mr. Morrisey and Mr. Jenkins each would be viable contenders against Mr. Manchin, who has come under fire from both Republicans, who call him too liberal, and Democrats, who call him too conservative.

“It is very simple, Bernie Sanders won all 55 counties in the Democratic primary and Donald Trump won all 55 primaries in the general election and Joe Manchin was a steadfast supporter of Hillary Clinton from the beginning of the presidential race,” Mr. Lucas said.

Nathan Gonzales, publisher of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan campaign tracker, rates Mr. Manchin’s re-election chances as “pure toss up” — grouping him with fellow Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

“Fundamentally, Manchin is a Democrat senator running in a state that voted over 60 percent for Donald Trump,” Mr. Gonzales said. “That is going to be difficult to navigate for the next year and a half.”

Mr. Manchin, a former governor and West Virginia secretary of state, has made his career in Washington by straddling the political center. He broke with Democrats and voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch earlier this year, and defected from his own party’s efforts in 2013 to upend the filibuster.

Progressive groups say he’s too willing to work with Mr. Trump — a damning complaint in the era of the “resist” movement.

For his part, Mr. Manchin has described himself as “fiercely independent” and a bipartisan bridge builder.

“I am the most centrist Democrat I think that we have if you look,” Mr. Manchin said Friday at a forum hosted by Politico. “I’ve been around a long time, so the people of West Virginia know who I am. They know that Joe is extremely independent, he’s going to do what he thinks is right.”

Mr. Gonzales said the political action committee represents another hurdle for the incumbent.

“Everyone complains about outside money and the influence of outside money, but it is still money,” Mr. Gonzales said. “If it is used for communication and effective messaging, it can make a difference in the race, and Republicans have to convince enough voters that the Joe Manchin they voted for in the past is different from the Joe Manchin they have now.”

Mr. Manchin, meanwhile, reported $2.2 million in cash at the end of March.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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