The Next Big Test of Trump’s Power
The most powerful Republicans in West Virginia are backing a local favorite seeking reelection to Congress. But the former president’s wrath could sink him.
MORGANTOWN, West Virginia—Eight days before a Republican-primary election that could end his political career, Representative David McKinley stood on the sunny banks of the Monongahela River and stared into a tank filled with brown sewage. A fetid stench—something like a mix of sulfur and diapers—befouled the crisp Appalachian air.
McKinley, battling Representative Alex Mooney, a fellow GOP lawmaker backed by Donald Trump, in his bid for his seventh term in Congress, was touring a wastewater-treatment plant and promoting his vote for an infrastructure law that could prove to be either his savior or his doom. The weather was lovely, and the mood was light. “Now you know where Yoo-hoo is made,” a plant executive whispered to me as we took in the scum, repeating a joke he had heard from one of his managers.
The metaphor conjured up by a congressman standing on the precipice of so much filth is perhaps too easy to embrace, but it’s particularly irresistible in a campaign that has descended so deeply into the muck. McKinley and Mooney have served together as Republicans in West Virginia’s tiny congressional delegation for the past eight years. But they have spent the past few months flinging all manner of invective at each other in an ad war that has spanned the northern half of the Mountain State. Mooney has assailed McKinley as a liar and a liberal “RINO” for backing the bipartisan infrastructure bill. In response, McKinley has run ads slamming Mooney, a former Maryland state senator under multiple investigations by the House Ethics Committee, as a corrupt carpetbagger and “a political prostitute.”
The cause of their primary campaign is West Virginia’s steep decline in population over the past decade and its resulting loss of a congressional district, forcing McKinley and Mooney to vie for one of the state’s two remaining seats. The cause of their unrelenting nastiness, however, is a more familiar force to Republican voters in this season of intraparty strife: Trump. The former president endorsed Mooney as an act of vengeance after McKinley voted for the infrastructure bill and gave President Joe Biden a big bipartisan victory. (He also angered Trump by voting for legislation to create a bipartisan January 6 commission.)
The outcome of the May 10 vote will be an important test of Trump’s clout in a state where the former president claimed his second-highest vote share and margin of victory in 2020. Were it not for Trump’s endorsement of Mooney, McKinley might have a pretty smooth path to reelection. A seventh-generation West Virginian, he has much deeper roots in the state than his opponent, and he already represents a far larger portion of the new district, which stretches from the outskirts of the D.C. Beltway to the border of Ohio in the west. He’s won endorsements from Republican Governor Jim Justice and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who is popular across party lines in the state and cut a TV ad defending McKinley’s vote for the infrastructure bill. Trump’s former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, also endorsed McKinley, as did, for some reason, Andrew Yang, the former presidential and New York City–mayoral hopeful.
West Virginia’s other senator, the Republican Shelley Moore Capito, has not officially backed McKinley, but her presence at his side just more than a week before the primary was signal enough of her support. After touring the wastewater-treatment plant, McKinley and Capito moved on to an abandoned mine site, whose cleanup will be aided by funds from the $1 trillion infrastructure law. The $6 billion that West Virginia is guaranteed to get from the bill is the seventh-highest amount, per capita, in the country, McKinley told reporters.
The congressman is 75 and hard of hearing—Mooney has said he was hoping McKinley would retire rather than fight him for the seat. But McKinley is one of just two civil engineers in Congress (compared with, he told me with just a touch of exaggeration, “242 attorneys in the House”), and his eyes lit up as he pored over maps of the mine site with state officials and learned how its projects would improve the region’s water supply. Yet many of McKinley’s questions to them alluded to the marketing challenge he faces in his campaign, one shared equally by Biden and many of the Democrats who voted for the landmark legislation: educating people about the importance of infrastructure improvements.
“How do we make sure people understand that this will affect your water?” he asked Rob Rice, the deputy director of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection. When Rice mentioned that people would once again be able to fish in a nearby creek that does not currently support aquatic life, McKinley nearly shouted. “Keep saying that! People don’t understand.”
One of the main reasons people don’t understand, at least in West Virginia, is because, with Trump’s help, Mooney has been campaigning against the bill as a bloated piece of federal spending. He’s also tried to tie McKinley’s support for the measure to Biden’s broader Build Back Better plan for new social programs. That prompted Manchin, perhaps the nation’s most famous opponent of Build Back Better, to go on TV and accuse Mooney of lying. Most voters I interviewed in the district said they supported the infrastructure bill, including a few who were backing Mooney. McKinley told me he had no regrets. “Not in the slightest,” he said, “because I know it’s going to move West Virginia forward.”
McKinley is no anti-Trump Republican. He opposed both impeachments of the former president and actually voted with Trump during his presidency more often than Mooney did. McKinley has criticized Mooney for votes against funding for Trump’s border wall. He wouldn’t tell me whether he wants Trump to run in 2024, but he said, “If he runs again, and he’s on the ballot, I’ll vote for him.” Trump spent the bulk of his presidency trying, with varying degrees of effort, to negotiate an infrastructure bill with Congress. But when Biden succeeded in winning GOP support for his own effort during his first year in office, his predecessor was furious. On the eve of the House vote in November, McKinley said “a member of the Trump administration”—he wouldn’t name who—called him and told him that if he voted for it, the former president would endorse his opponent in the primary. McKinley was unbowed. “I’m supporting West Virginia,” he told the emissary.
Trump made good on his threat, and a race that once was McKinley’s to lose is now, according to most observers, too close to call. “I agree with President Trump more often than my opponent did,” McKinley said. “But on this one, I think he made the wrong call.” The most powerful people in West Virginia have taken McKinley’s side, but in this state, Trump’s wrath might be all that’s needed to sink him.
The enormous posters hung on the fence around Alex Mooney’s campaign headquarters don’t contain the words Republican or conservative; their only message is the smiling visages of Mooney and Trump, standing next to each other and flashing a thumbs-up, as if they’re running on a ticket together. In many ways, they are.
For a candidate whose chief vulnerability is the charge that he’s an interloper, Mooney doesn’t seem to be making a huge effort to demonstrate his West Virginia bona fides. The 50-year-old former congressional aide served for a dozen years in the Maryland state Senate and chaired the state’s Republican Party before he moved to West Virginia to snag an open House seat in 2014. Mooney’s chief of staff is a sitting state senator in Maryland, and in a district that spans 250 miles from east to west, he chose to open his lone campaign office in Charles Town, a small city at the eastern edge of West Virginia’s panhandle, just a few miles from the state where he has spent the bulk of his life. (To be fair, had a trio of rural Maryland counties gotten their way and been allowed to join West Virginia, Mooney’s headquarters would be a lot farther from the border.)
Charles Town is Mooney’s home and in a part of the new district where he’s best known, but that fact cuts both ways. The first person I met in town was Shepherd Ogden, a 73-year-old retiree who was sitting in front of the town’s early-voting site. When I asked him for his thoughts on the race, the first words out of his mouth were, “Mooney’s a carpetbagger.” He asked whom he was running against, and when I told him, he replied, “Then I’ll vote for McKinley.”
Down the street I met a teacher named Alex Orton, who told me he was a Democrat but switched his registration last month so that he could vote against Mooney in the GOP primary. “He’s not even from here,” Orton, 35, told me. Still, Mooney had his backers. Danesia Chicchirichi, an event coordinator who voted twice for Barack Obama and then twice for Trump, said she was backing Mooney because she knew him better than McKinley—and because she knew the candidate’s mother, whom she described as “a force to be reckoned with.”
Neither Mooney nor McKinley has exactly been barnstorming the district as the primary draws to a close, choosing to fight it out largely on television. The result is a fiercely negative campaign that has soured some voters on both men. “The first negative stuff I started hearing was from Mooney, and I didn’t like that,” Buddy Maynor, a Trump-supporting disabled veteran in Morgantown, told me in explaining his vote for McKinley.
Mooney undoubtedly had been hoping for a visit from Trump, but all he scored was a short “telerally” in which the former president dialed in for brief remarks on a conference call. “Alex is an ‘America First’ warrior, a House of Representatives person that I call,” Trump said, apparently reading—occasionally haltingly—from prepared remarks. “He’s always been there for me, and he’s always been there for your energy and your clean coal.” The entire call lasted about 15 minutes, and although Trump said he understood that “a big group of people” was listening, it was impossible to independently verify how many West Virginia voters heard his pitch.
As for McKinley, Trump called him “a RINO who supported the fake infrastructure bill that wasted hundreds of billions of dollars on the Green New Deal.” It was that kind of falsehood that led McKinley to visit a sewage plant to defend his vote. Yet despite his appeal for state officials and the press to educate the public on the importance of infrastructure, McKinley has chosen to spend his nearly $2 million in campaign funds on other messages. None of his TV ads—which reach a far larger audience than his local press tour received—mentions infrastructure; most of them attack Mooney instead. I asked him if that decision was an acknowledgment that for all of infrastructure’s benefits, voters don’t actually want to hear about it.
“I don’t know if it’s an acknowledgment,” McKinley replied. “All I know is that when someone punches you in the nose, Russell, would you just sit there and take it?” I had no response, and McKinley noticed. “Thank you,” he said. “That’s your answer.”