RIPLEY, W.Va. — It was just one of hundreds of handshakes, a momentary truce before the battle that will escalate after the July Fourth recess.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, the Republican nominee for Senate, stood patiently waiting Wednesday for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III to finish his conversation with a Gold Star mother.
Then he approached his opponent — the same man he would call a chameleon in an interview moments later — and extended a hand.
Both men were making the rounds at the staging area for the Ripley Fourth of July parade, which bills itself as the country’s “largest small town Independence Day celebration.” The town of 3,000 people is the county seat of Jackson County, where nearly 80 percent of voters backed President Donald Trump in 2016.
Their exchange was brief. The 100-degree heat was a natural icebreaker.
Several minutes later, as Manchin walked past the Morrisey campaign’s red convertible, he stopped to shake hands with some of his opponent’s staffers and volunteers.
And then it was go time.
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The Senate candidates, as well as 2nd District Rep. Alex X. Mooney and his Democratic opponent Talley Sergent, hustled between crowds on both sides of the 1.5-mile parade route.
Flanked by staffers tossing candy, they marched over each other’s flattened Tootsie Rolls melting into the asphalt and rushed to greet parade viewers, who’d staked out their spots with folding chairs hours before the high-noon start.
Manchin left no children’s choir unacknowledged, his tall frame often curved into a 60-degree angle as he stooped over. Morrisey, decked out in swag from The Greenbrier resort, where Trump had appeared the night before, asked for high-fives from younger onlookers. At the end of the route, he asked his staff if he could double back to greet more people.
For a Toss-up Senate race that will be influenced by tens of millions of dollars of more digital and television advertising still to come, it was an opportunity for the candidates to prove they show up and maybe leave some sort of impression, with a handshake or an empathetic ear.
“Hey guys! Patrick Morrisey, I’m running for Senate,” the Republican shouted, fully aware that even as a statewide elected official, he needs to increase his name recognition to defeat Manchin, a former two-term governor.
“Joe’s gotta go!” he hollered.
The most recent public poll, conducted in mid-June by Monmouth University, gave Manchin a 7-point lead among all potential voters, with a margin of plus or minus 5.4 points.
A Trump state
But Manchin’s running in a state Trump carried by more than 40 points in 2016 — and the parade viewers let him know it.
“Build the wall!” they shouted, alluding to one of the president’s signature campaign promises.
Manchin nodded. In a recent campaign ad, he’s argued that he supports funding a wall along the southern border.
To a lifelong Republican voter, Manchin also stressed the importance of using technology to secure the border, telling the voter that much of it lies on private land.
The 2016 presidential race looms especially large over this Senate contest. Manchin endorsed Hillary Clinton, whose infamous comments about putting coal miners out of work have and will be used against him.
He’s expressed regrets for endorsing the former secretary of State and has left the door open to backing Trump in 2020. He routinely touts his work with the president.
In an interview with a West Virginia radio station last week, Manchin said he told Trump that it’d be much harder to confirm someone to the Supreme Court who wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade.
“If he picks somebody that’s hardcore on Roe v. Wade or that hardcore on repealing health care, that’s a bigger lift,” the senator told West Virginia MetroNews.
Manchin stuck to the health care part of that answer in an interview Wednesday with Roll Call, using it to pivot toward an attack on Morrisey.
“Pre-existing conditions is my No. 1 thing,” he said.
Manchin’s campaign has been hitting Morrisey for signing on to a lawsuit filed in U.S. district court in Texas that would effectively end protections for people with pre-existing conditions by seeking to block the 2010 health care law.
Morrisey has no reservations about the suit, which is supported by the Trump administration, and insisted he wants to find ways to provide “help and assistance to those who need it most, including those with pre-existing conditions.”
Partisan affiliation is a poor indicator of candidate choice in West Virginia.
Democrats have a voter registration advantage in the state, and yet Trump’s approval rating was nearly 70 percent in the recent Monmouth survey. Many of those Trump supporters have traditionally voted for Manchin, first for governor and then for Senate.
But some of them said Wednesday they’re not sure they’ll stick with Manchin this year.
“I haven’t been as happy,” said Melody Smith, a 67-year-old registered Democrat from Cottageville. “I’d like for him to support Trump more.”
And what’s so appealing about Trump? “He really appears to be for the people,” she said. “Democrats don’t have a clue what the people want.”
David Haynes is a registered Republican, and he’s always voted for Manchin, who earned 17 percent of the GOP vote in the recent Monmouth survey. Haynes still likes the Democratic senator, but he’s unsure what to do this year.
“I think Joe has forgotten about West Virginia,” said the 43-year-old from Kenna. “You don’t see his face, and I think that’s hurting him.”
Manchin is expecting Republicans to attack him for being “all about Washington.”
“I come home every weekend,” he said in an interivew. “I live on the boat, so I can just pull up the anchor and take off when I’m done. So there’s nothing permanent about that place for me.”
Morrisey has Washington connections of his own. He’s not the Republican that Democrats most feared. A Democratic outside group spent nearly $2 million in the GOP primary attacking Rep. Evan Jenkins, concerned he presented a bigger threat to the senator. Jenkins ended up second in that race, 6 points behind Morrisey.
Besides his previous work for lobbying firms and his wife’s lobbying work, Morrisey has faced attacks for having only moved into the state in 2006. He first ran for Congress in New Jersey.
That’s one reason some Trump voters want to keep Manchin around.
“He’s homegrown,” said Felicity Kelley.
The 46-year-old Ripley resident and the two people with her, all of whom voted for Trump, agreed that Manchin has been plenty supportive of the president. They said they’re backing the senator because he’s like them.
Others had somewhat more practical reasons.
“We’ve got enough Republicans,” said 71-year-old Dave Canterbury, a registered Democrat who voted for Trump. Besides the president, he alluded to Gov. Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat in 2016 but switched parties last year.
“We need checks and balances,” he said.