As his opponents hammer away at his history as a Democrat, Rep. Evan H. Jenkins has fallen to third place in West Virginia’s Republican Senate primary election, as the three leading Republicans engage in an increasingly ugly contest for the right to challenge Sen. Joe Manchin III.
A survey conducted by Osage Research and commissioned by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s Senate campaign shows Mr. Morrisey in front at 24.1 percent. Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who spent a year in federal prison in connection with the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010, came in second at 22.6 percent, and Mr. Jenkins was third with 17.4 percent.
The Republican field poll had a margin of error of 4.38 percent. The survey conflicts with previous polling data commissioned by the Jenkins campaign, which showed the congressman with a comfortable lead.
The winner of the May 8 primary will face Mr. Manchin, a Democrat, in what is widely seen as a key race and a golden opportunity for Republicans to pick up a seat in a state that Donald Trump won convincingly in the 2016 presidential contest.
Mr. Morrisey is ramping up attacks against Mr. Jenkins over his political record. Mr. Jenkins switched parties in 2013 and became a Republican, saying at the time he was “leaving Barack Obama’s party.” Since announcing his candidacy, he has clung to Mr. Trump and said he is dedicated to unraveling Obama-era regulations especially harmful to West Virginia.
But Mr. Morrisey’s campaign has dubbed Mr. Jenkins a “liberal in hiding,” trying to cast doubt among primary voters that the congressman is a true conservative. Among other things, the Morrisey camp has highlighted his past support of Democrats, such as John F. Kerry for president in 2004.
The Morrisey campaign also dismissed the internal Jenkins poll as “junk,” though it’s likely Mr. Morrisey’s opponents similarly will dismiss the survey he commissioned.
“Liberal Evan Jenkins has misled voters about his record repeatedly, from his support for cap-and-trade, which kills coal jobs, to his rallying for Hillary Clinton, to his votes for gun control,” Mr. Morrisey said in a statement after the polling data were made public. “It’s not surprising that Jenkins is now releasing junk polling. West Virginia voters deserve a conservative senator who will stand up to the liberals in Washington, not someone who will say one thing and do another.”
Mr. Jenkins has cast himself as the one capable of working best with Mr. Trump and reversing Democratic failures, including what he believes is a flawed energy policy and an inability of the Obama administration to deal with the opioid crisis that has gripped his state.
“This election is about bringing WV back from the Obama era,” Mr. Jenkins wrote on Twitter last week.
Meanwhile, Mr. Blankenship — initially seen as a long-shot candidate who might struggle to compete with established politicians such as Mr. Morrisey and Mr. Jenkins — is more than holding his own in the contest, polling shows.
His most recent TV ad also took direct aim at Mr. Jenkins for his Democratic past, and Mr. Blankenship contends that the congressman simply hasn’t done enough for his district.
“Evan has a great smile, a great life. My goal is for all West Virginians to have the same,” Mr. Blankenship said.
While some polling has shown that Mr. Manchin would win hypothetical matchups with either Mr. Jenkins or Mr. Morrisey, recent data indicate that the incumbent could be in trouble.
A poll released last week by Axios and SurveyMonkey found that Mr. Manchin trails a generic, unnamed Republican candidate 52 percent to 43 percent.