MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — From opioids to open borders to President Trump’s pick for the Supreme Court, the race to represent West Virginia in the U.S. Senate turned ugly Thursday night as the two candidates traded vicious attacks on each other’s credibility and made their final pitches to undecided voters in the crucial contest.
Incumbent Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin III and his Republican challenger, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, are locked in one of the country’s tightest Senate races, and each went into Thursday’s forum — the only formal debate the two men have participated in — looking to land decisive, final blows.
Mr. Morrisey, who will get a boost when Mr. Trump stumps for him in West Virginia on Friday, tried to cast Mr. Manchin as part of Democrats’ “obstruct, resist, impeach team,” and said he’s another “dishonest Washington liberal” who doesn’t have his state’s best interest at heart. His most pointed attack came as he hit Mr. Manchin over the incumbent’s stance on Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who narrowly advanced to the high court last month after facing numerous allegations of sexual misconduct.
Mr. Manchin was the only Democrat to back Justice Kavanaugh, but he announced his position only after Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said she’d vote “yes,” leaving no doubt as to the final outcome.
“He took a powder in the bathroom and left, and allowed Maine to decide West Virginia’s vote,” Mr. Morrisey said of his Democratic opponent.
The two men also traded shots over the opioid crisis that’s ravaged the state. Mr. Morrisey formerly did lobbying work for the pharmaceutical industry, and Mr. Manchin argued that his foe’s previous role makes him fundamentally unqualified to tackle the crisis.
“There’s only one person who’s made money from pills coming to West Virginia, and he’s sitting right here, Patrick Morrisey,” Mr. Manchin said. “The system is broken. Patrick Morrisey helped break it.”
The West Virginia race is likely to play a large role in determining which party controls the Senate next year. Mr. Trump won West Virginia by more than 40 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and the president remains wildly popular in the state.
Given Mr. Trump’s strong level of support here, the GOP views the state as a golden opportunity to snatch a Senate seat from Democrats and greatly increase their chances of holding the chamber. They’ve poured huge amounts of money into the race, and in addition to the president’s appearances, Vice President Mike Pence, Donald Trump Jr., and other influential Republicans also have rallied for Mr. Morrisey.
Mr. Morrisey is an outspoken supporter of the president, and Mr. Manchin also has openly courted Trump backers in his state. Mr. Manchin said Thursday night he wants the president to “do well” and succeed.
But the two men diverged on Mr. Trump’s highly inflammatory rhetoric on immigration and other hot-button issues. Mr. Manchin suggested the president’s tone — which some Democrats have blamed for fueling last week’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and inspiring a Florida man to mail bombs to left-wing political figures and media outlets — isn’t helpful.
“Quit acting like you belong to some tribe,” Mr. Manchin said. “Act like you belong to the American tribe … We’re seeing that it’s OK to divide. Instead of the United States of America, it’s almost the divided states.”
Mr. Morrisey didn’t directly endorse the president’s rhetoric, but he didn’t explicitly denounce it either.
“I think the president has been doing the right thing to call out some of the politically incorrect things that have been going on for a long time,” he said.
On health care, Mr. Manchin — a towering figure in state politics who previously served as governor before being elected to the Senate in 2010 — went out of his way to assure West Virginia voters that he’d help save the pieces Obamacare that protect those with pre-existing conditions. He bashed Mr. Morrisey for backing a lawsuit that would scrap the entire law and said the Republican would allow hundreds of thousands of West Virginians to lose coverage.
“He could care less about that. He wants to throw them off,” Mr. Manchin said.
Mr. Morrisey, who previously ran for Congress in New Jersey before moving to West Virginia more than a decade ago, has built his political career on opposing a host of Obama-era regulations in court. He stood by his lawsuit to repeal the Affordable Care Act but said that he’d support steps to ensure those with preexisting conditions don’t lose coverage.
“President Trump supports affordable health-care options, high quality,” Mr. Morrisey said, tying himself to the president.
Polls have shown the race tightening in recent days. Two surveys released this week gave Mr. Manchin a 5-point edge, a drop-off from his lead earlier in the cycle. The Real Clear Politics average of all polls currently gives Mr. Manchin a 9-point advantage.
One GOP-funded poll released last week showed Mr. Morrisey with a 2-point lead.