Infrastructure spending, long an issue that has drawn bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, is shaping up to be a clear dividing line in an upcoming congressional primary for one of the nation’s most Republican districts.
In West Virginia’s newly drawn 2nd Congressional District, two incumbent GOP lawmakers are preparing for a heated primary campaign after their seats were drawn together because of redistricting. The two lawmakers, Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney, differ strongly in political style and background.
Those differences culminated this month when President Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package ran into trouble with far-left Democrats.
Mr. McKinley and 12 other House Republicans crossed party lines to save the bill, their votes negating the opposition of six progressive Democrats. Given that Democrats hold a narrow majority in the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi could afford to lose only three of her members.
“Instead of playing politics, I put America and West Virginia first,” Mr. McKinley said. “America’s infrastructure has been in dire need of modernization, and this bipartisan infrastructure bill is what community leaders from one panhandle to the other have expressed that West Virginia needs to restore our aging infrastructure.”
Mr. Mooney did not see the vote the same way. He said the $1.2 trillion bill added $256 billion to the deficit and only helped advance Mr. Biden’s domestic agenda.
“The price tag far exceeds anything remotely reasonable and further adds to our country’s ballooning debt,” Mr. Mooney told The Washington Times. “I support better roads, bridges, waterways and broadband internet for the great state of West Virginia. However, this bill is loaded full of liberal priorities not related to infrastructure and transportation.”
Complicating matters was that at the time of the vote, far-left Democrats were linking the infrastructure package’s passage to Mr. Biden’s roughly $1.75 trillion social welfare and climate bill. The bigger bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, includes a trove of progressive priorities such as climate change programs and expanded job training for felons.
Because of the linkage, both former President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican, were actively whipping against the infrastructure package.
“This [infrastructure] legislation would not have passed the House without the support of 13 Republicans who paved the way for Democrats to pass the socialist Build Back Better plan,” Mr. Mooney said. “These two multitrillion-dollar votes will directly determine the fate of President Biden’s reckless spending agenda.”
Mr. McKinley contends that the bills were always separate, regardless of the claims made by House Democrats. He has also gone out of his way to stress opposition to the bigger spending bill.
“Look, President Trump proposed a $2 trillion infrastructure plan during his administration, but Democrats played politics and made sure it did not happen,” Mr. McKinley said. “We cannot let our communities suffer the consequences of gamesmanship this time around.”
It remains to be seen whether that argument will win out in West Virginia, a state that voted for Mr. Trump last year by nearly 39 points.
Mr. McKinley, a civil engineer by training, is betting that voters will see past the rhetoric and reward him for bringing home money for new roads and bridges.
History is on his side. Not only have infrastructure investments been broadly popular and bipartisan, but also West Virginia has rewarded politicians electorally for their ability to bring home federal money. The state’s late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd was notably known as the “King of Pork” for exactly that reason.
“We’ve all heard stories of children in West Virginia sitting in parking lots to do their schoolwork because their homes are not connected to reliable broadband internet,” Mr. McKinley said. “I voted for those kids and to give the next generation of West Virginians hope for a brighter future.”
Mr. Mooney noted that the majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate voted against the infrastructure bill because of the hardball tactics by far-left Democrats.
“If we would have killed this bill, we could have forced the Democrats in the House of Representatives to work with us, and we could have gotten a better deal,” he said. “But we weren’t willing to do that. David McKinley and 12 other Republicans just gave it to them.”
Mr. Trump appears to agree. The former president is backing Mr. Mooney for the seat, specifically citing his vote against the infrastructure package.
“Congressman Alex Mooney has my complete and total endorsement,” Mr. Trump said.
The race between Mr. Mooney and Mr. McKinley will not only test the popularity of the White House’s infrastructure deal but also Mr. Trump’s power to sway voters in the deep-red state.
Once a solidly Democratic state, West Virginia has increasingly favored Republicans since the mid-2000s. The state’s decision to abandon the Democratic Party coincided with the Obama administration’s “war on coal” that killed thousands of jobs in West Virginia.
Mr. McKinley, a native of the state, has long been a fixture in local GOP circles. In the 1980s, he was one of a small cadre of Republicans fighting Democratic dominance in the state’s House of Delegates.
After a failed gubernatorial bid in 1994, Mr. McKinley retired from politics. He then staged a comeback by narrowly winning a congressional seat as part of 2010’s tea party wave.
“He’s been around for a while, he‘s been active in the party,” said Greg Thomas, a Republican strategist in West Virginia. “He’s going to have a higher name ID, most likely, and a lot of personal relationships with people across the district to cash in on next year.”
Recognition cuts both ways, however. While Mr. McKinley already represents nearly two-thirds of West Virginia’s new 2nd Congressional District, constituents recognize he is more moderate than Mr. Mooney.
Apart from working with Democrats on energy issues, Mr. McKinley also bucked Trump supporters this year by voting to certify Mr. Biden’s electoral college victory. He also backed a push by Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, to establish a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
That history, coupled with Mr. McKinley’s support for coronavirus relief and the infrastructure package, has earned him a few surprise endorsements that are unlikely to be viewed favorably in a GOP primary.
“David McKinley is a West Virginia Republican congressman who supported cash relief and the infrastructure bill,” said Andrew Yang, a failed Democratic candidate for president and New York City mayor. “He’s now running against a Trump-endorsed candidate. I’m supporting David and hope you will too.”
Mr. Mooney is a relative newcomer to West Virginia politics. A former Maryland state senator, he moved to West Virginia in 2013 to run for an open congressional seat.
Despite being little known outside of the state’s eastern panhandle, Mr. Mooney beat six other better-known challengers for the GOP nomination and then narrowly defeated a former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party.
Since then, Mr. Mooney has easily secured reelection by double digits. In 2020, he won the seat by 26 points. In Congress, he has cut a conservative profile as a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus and a fierce defender of Mr. Trump.
“What this whole race is going end up being about is the direction of the GOP in West Virginia,” Mr. Thomas said. “McKinley kind of represents a little bit more of the old guard, while Mooney is from a new generation of conservatives influenced by Trumpism.”