- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Senate’s most conservative Democrat is a top target for the GOP in this year’s midterm elections, but some analysts say Joe Manchin’s ability to walk a tight rope in his deep red state — combined with an increasingly bitter Republican primary that could damage the eventual winner, as the candidates bash each other on opioids and other issues — should make him the favorite to win another term.

There’s been relatively little polling in the race thus far, but the surveys that have been done show Mr. Manchin, the state’s former governor who’s often clashed with his own party on energy and other key issues, with a solid lead over both West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins in hypothetical match-ups.

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who spent a year in federal prison in connection with the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010, also is battling for the GOP nomination. The primary election will be held May 8.

In a state that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in the 2016 presidential contest, Mr. Manchin has had to find the political sweet spot on highly controversial issues such as guns and the fight against opioid addiction. While on paper as if a Democrat would be ripe for defeat in West Virginia, specialists argue his record and the potential for a midterm backlash against Republicans give Mr. Manchin an edge.

“I think they’re whistling past the graveyard if they think it’s going to be easy” to defeat Mr. Manchin, said John Kilwein, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University. “He is an extremely adept politician at reading his electorate … He was always a conservative Democrat, and this always was a conservative Democratic state. He’s a pretty savvy politician. That’s not to say he couldn’t be knocked off, but he knows his electorate.”

On some issues, Mr. Manchin has been quick to align himself with Mr. Trump, who remains deeply popular in the state and bested Democrat Hillary Clinton there by a whopping 42 points in the 2016 presidential election.

On gun control, for example, Mr. Manchin — who for years has pushed a bipartisan bill to expand background check systems — has praised the president for his leadership in the aftermath of the Parkland, Florida, school massacre last month.

On Sunday, Mr. Manchin said he thinks Mr. Trump would sign that bill if it got to his desk.

“I really believe he would,” Mr. Manchin said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

But nodding to home-state concerns, Mr. Manchin said Sunday that nobody wants to take people’s guns away and that adding Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill to ban so-called assault weapons into the mix would not help the effort.

“I’ve told Dianne that,” he said.

The senator also has come down firmly in favor of the much of the administration’s effort to undo Obama-era regulations on energy production, including rules that greatly hampered coal production.

Meanwhile, the three main Republicans in the race are simultaneously taking shots at Mr. Manchin and also trying to outflank each other among the state’s strongly conservative Republican base.

Mr. Morrisey, who led the legal fight against the Obama administration’s climate-change agenda, also has positioned himself as a leader in the fight against the nation’s opioid crisis, which has quickly become a top issue in the GOP primary contest.

Late last year, he sued the federal Drug Enforcement Administration over how it handles the amount of opioid pills allowed into the market. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week ordered a review of that issue in response to the lawsuit.

“For far too long, the DEA quota system acted on the wants of industry rather than the medical need of patients,” Mr. Morrisey said last week in response to the announcement from Mr. Sessions.

But Mr. Morrisey’s past work in Washington lobbying on behalf of pharmaceutical trade groups has led his opponents to charge that he’s a hypocrite on the issue, which quickly has become a top point of attack for his Republican opponents.

Mr. Jenkins, for example, dubbed Mr. Morrisey “#painpillPat” on Twitter and said it’s outrageous for him to attack other Republicans for not doing enough on the issue.

“His unhinged behavior is a classic case of what psychologists would call ‘projection,’” Mr. Jenkins tweeted last month.

Mr. Blankenship also has taken aim at his opponent on the matter, specifically blasting Mr. Morrisey’s past acceptance of campaign contributions from pharmaceutical groups.

“We must tackle the drug problem, which has hit the Northern Panhandle hard. Unlike Patrick Morrisey, I won’t be accepting contributions from big drug companies that feed our people drugs like candy,” he tweeted recently.

David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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