CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia Republican U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney is a Trump-backed Christian conservative who is anti-abortion, pro-coal and thinks marriage should be “ between a man and a woman.” Democrat Barry Wendell, his opponent in next week's election, is an openly gay Jewish man who supports abortion rights and replacing fossil fuels with clean energy.
You'd think the candidates — who couldn't be more different — would have a lot to talk about. But Mooney hasn't shown much interest in debating or even engaging with Wendell. The sitting congressman is more interested in talking about the last Democrat holding statewide office in West Virginia, Sen. Joe Manchin.
Mooney is expected to breeze to victory in deep-red West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, and he's all but completely ignored Wendell. Instead, he's spending much of his energy on Manchin, who endorsed Mooney's opponent, outgoing Rep. David McKinley, during the state's May primary. The two GOP congressmen were pitted against each other after population losses cost West Virginia a U.S. House seat, and Mooney won handily.
Manchin has not yet officially announced whether he'll run for reelection in 2024, and Mooney vows that his primary concern is seeing himself and other conservatives get elected and take back the majority in the U.S. House.
But the Republican congressman’s focus on Manchin is fueling speculation that he might run against him in 2024, which he’s doing nothing to tamp down. In an interview with the AP, Mooney said a Senate race is something to consider. He said the Democratic Party in West Virginia is “nearly obliterated,” calling Manchin “out-of-touch.”
“It’s something I’m certainly going to look at,” he said. “I don’t know how arrogant you have to be to think that as a Democrat U.S. senator, you can instruct Republicans who vote in primaries how to vote.”
Less than three months ago, he released a “Mooney for Congress” television advertisement solely targeting Manchin, whose profile has been raised nationally by his role as a swing vote on several major spending packages in the divided U.S. Senate. The ad asserts the Democrat “sold out West Virginia” when he voted to support Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.
“Suddenly, Joe Manchin is backing Joe Biden's liberal agenda. Manchin is supporting legislation that will raise our taxes, tax our coal industry and devastate West Virginia communities,” the ad states. “Alex Mooney won’t let Joe Manchin and Joe Biden destroy our coal industry and devastate West Virginia.”
Manchin played a key role in the drafting of the Inflation Reduction Act, which invests nearly $375 billion to fight climate change, caps prescription drug costs for Medicare recipients and extended health insurance by extending subsidies provided during the coronavirus pandemic.
But Manchin, who has received more campaign contributions this election cycle from natural gas pipeline companies than any other lawmaker, won concessions on the climate front. The bill includes money to encourage alternative energy and to bolster fossil fuels with steps such as subsidies for technology that reduces carbon emissions.
West Virginia's coal industry is a shell of what it once was — coal production has declined more than 50% in the last decade.
Meanwhile, Wendell says Mooney agreed to do a virtual candidates forum with a local newspaper but the congressman hasn't made himself available for a debate or to participate in any in-person events in the district alongside Wendell. He said he feels like both Republicans and Democrats, including Manchin, are ignoring his challenge.
“They don't think there's a chance,” he said.
Wendell, a 73-year-old retired substitute teacher and Social Security Administration claims representative, said he decided to run for Congress as a Democrat in West Virginia because nobody had entered the race with more political experience.
“I kept hoping somebody else would run. I just thought, ”‘Well, if nobody else is going to do this, I guess I have to do it,’” said Wendell, whose political experience consists of a four-year stint on city council in Morgantown, the state’s third-largest city. “My primary motivation was not to let the Republicans walk away with this election without having to put up a fight.”
Throughout his campaign, Mooney has hammered away at the need to reduce U.S. inflation and protect gun laws. He feels no need to talk much about the ongoing ethics inquiries he's facing.
The nonpartisan Office of Congressional Ethics referred Mooney to the House Committee on Ethics last year based on allegations that he used campaign money for personal expenses, including trips to resorts and to Chick-fil-A.
Shortly after Mooney’s primary win, a report was released by the congressional watchdog group confirming that he likely broke House rules when he accepted a trip to Aruba in March 2021 allegedly paid for by a campaign client and family friend. The report also said two former Mooney staff members told the OCE that he “tampered with or withheld documents” and that Mooney refused to cooperate when the office tried to investigate the claims.
Mooney has insisted that he’s reimbursed campaign client HSP Direct and that no taxpayer funds were used to pay for the trip. He says his office is fully cooperating with the Committee on Ethics. But he has not seemed too concerned.
“I think voters are just focused on whether or not (candidates) are going to fight for their freedoms in this country, which are under serious attack right now with the current Congress and administration," he said. "That’s what I’m focused on.”
Wendell, who moved to West Virginia from California a decade ago, said he has tried unsuccessfully to ask the national Democratic party for more funding and support, to no avail.
Mooney has raised almost $4.4 million this election cycle on the race in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional district — with the most sizeable donations coming from conservative super PACS, according to federal election commission records. Much of that money was used to bolster his primary campaign. Wendell has spent just under $25,000.
Learn more about the issues and factors at play in the midterms at https://apnews.com/hub/explaining-the-elections. And follow the AP’s election coverage of the 2022 elections at https://apnews.com/hub/2022-midterm-elections.