A fight over the direction of the GOP is brewing deep in ruby-red West Virginia as Republicans contemplate what they believe is their best chance to unseat moderate Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
While it’s early in the 2024 cycle, Republicans are already eyeing West Virginia as a reasonable pickup opportunity in a Senate electoral map that’s widely expected to favor them over Democrats. Manchin hasn’t yet said what he plans to do yet.
Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., is the only declared major candidate in the race so far. His campaign recently got a boost from conservative group Club For Growth, which pledged to spend at least $10 million toward the House Freedom Caucus member.
Mooney has also been endorsed by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
But Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., appears to be looking toward a more moderate candidate in the state’s popular governor, Jim Justice, who switched parties from Democrat to Republican in 2017. Justice told Fox & Friends last month that he was “seriously considering” a Senate bid, but has not entered the race.
Without commenting on Mooney’s campaign, the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund called Justice the “strongest” candidate to face Manchin in November 2024.
“Governor Justice is an extraordinarily popular figure in West Virginia, and our polling shows he already dominates the Republican primary field and would be by far the strongest general election candidate to defeat Joe Manchin,” Senate Leadership Fund spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair told Fox News Digital.
National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) Chair Steve Daines, R-Mont., leader of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, has been “recruiting Justice to run,” according to a source familiar with the NRSC’s thinking.
The source pointed to Justice’s above-water popularity with West Virginians and Republican-friendly policies like the sweeping tax cuts he implemented this year. “He’s just got a strong record in the state, West Virginians love him,” the source said. Justice also has higher name recognition in the state than Mooney does.
The battle lines being drawn in West Virginia are similar to those seen around the country in 2022, when Democrats kept hold of the Senate while several GOP candidates, many of which were hardliners and backed by former President Donald Trump, lost races that were at one point expected to lean right.
But in an interview with Fox News Digital, Mooney – who aligns himself closely with Trump – pointed out that the ex-president’s brand of politics proved overwhelmingly popular in both 2016 and 2020.
It also had a test-run in Mooney’s House primary last year, when he was pitted against Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., after West Virginia lost a seat in the redistricting process. McKinley was endorsed by Justice and Manchin, while Mooney was backed by Trump.
During his interview, Mooney pointed to Justice’s past affiliation as a Democrat and dismissed him and Manchin as “big-spending liberals.”
“I’m the only conservative [in the running],” Mooney said.
“Jim Justice and Joe Manchin both tried to defeat me in my last race. They both ran TV ads attacking me, and one of the reasons why – I didn’t vote for Joe Biden’s [$1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure act]. Specifically, they attacked me for that,” Mooney said. “So I guess if you want a big spender who’s going to bankrupt America, you have other choices other than me – you have Jim Justice or Joe Manchin.”
A source familiar with Mooney’s campaign told Fox News Digital that they had also met with the NRSC.
The GOP divide was evident in Club For Growth President David McIntosh’s statement to Fox News Digital on why his group was backing Mooney.
“Jim Justice comes from the big spending, Mitch McConnell wing of the Republican Party,” McIntosh said. “With runaway inflation, Republican primary voters no longer want to elect senators who will support the out-of-control radical spending like Manchin and Justice, and instead want principled, pro-growth conservatives like Alex Mooney.”
The conservative group spent more than $14 million in the 2022 North Carolina Senate GOP primary, where a similar inter-party fracture played out. In that state, little-known Donald Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., beat the state’s popular former Republican governor Pat McCrory.
Recent polls put Justice in the lead. National Public Affairs survey from this month projects the governor having a 55% lead over Mooney’s 24%. A Senate Leadership Fund-commissioned poll shared by McConnell earlier this year also has Justice in the lead.
Brand-new poll commissioned by Mooney’s campaign and shared with Fox News Digital gives the House Freedom Caucus lawmaker a four-point lead over Justice, 45-41.
But even with backing from the Club For Growth, Mooney’s fundraising operation is still far behind Manchin’s – though it is early in the race.
Mooney’s campaign raised more than $500,000 in the first quarter and ended the period with nearly $1.4 million cash on-hand.
Between 2019 and 2022, a non-active cycle for Manchin after he won re-election in 2018, the Democratic senator raised more than $8.5 million.