HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. — The front-runners have now formally entered a potentially bruising Republican Senate primary in West Virginia, even as the state’s incumbents are in the middle of the health care debate.
Patrick Morrisey, the state attorney general, kicked off his widely expected campaign from a motel here in his home base in the Mountain State’s eastern panhandle.
Much of his energy was focused not on the primary contest against GOP Rep. Evan H. Jenkins, but on the incumbent Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin III. Morrisey told Roll Call he has been keeping watch on the struggle to craft a measure to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law back in D.C.
“We’re following the debate very closely, and I want to urge everyone to not quit in this repeal effort. We have to keep going, and just ’cause it’s difficult, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. I wish I were there now. I could help them, because Sen. Manchin’s offering no help in this debate,” Morrisey said. “He’s sitting on the sidelines thinking he has an easy ‘no’ vote. He doesn’t. He has to make sure he engages and focuses on that issue.”
Manchin, at the Capitol ahead of floor votes Monday, said he thought the health care debate would be a key to the Senate race.
“Every human being in my state state is affected one way or another,” he said. “I think they’re going to have to explain why they voted for the House plan, … why they support the Republican plan that takes so many people off and hurts so many people.”
Washington bona fides
Morrisey probably knows more about health care policy sausage-making than many of the principals who crafted this year’s GOP measures.
He worked as the chief health care counsel at the House Energy and Commerce Committee from 1999 to 2004, a period marked by the enactment in 2003 of the Medicare prescription drug law, which took a famous all-night session to get through the House. After he left Capitol Hill, he worked as a partner at the lobbying firm Sidley Austin, and was later a partner at King & Spalding, another lobbying firm, before being elected state attorney general in 2012.
Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito has been critical of the most recent drafts of GOP bills to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law, in particular citing concerns about the lack of funding to combat the opioid crisis that’s been a particular scourge on the Mountain State, as well as the effect of rolling back the expansion of Medicaid on the state’s population.
“Medicaid is a program that protects the most vulnerable, and that’s going to be continued, but my point is we have to keep going after reducing those premiums,” Morrisey said. “We’ve seen unbelievable double-digit premium increases, and my focus, as an old health care lawyer, would be to keep going after them.”
Jenkins voted for passage of the House version of the legislation, but he made the case that doing so was not an endorsement of the bill as a final product.
“This bill is just the first step in restoring the doctor-patient relationship and improving health care quality. It also gives our states the flexibility to choose what meets their needs,” Jenkins said in a statement. “I do believe that more work remains to be done to make this bill better, and I voted to send this bill to the Senate so that work can continue.”
A person close to the congressman said he largely approached the issue from a similar perspective as Capito, stressing the importance of meeting the needs of West Virginians in any final product.
Channeling the president?
Morrisey’s message at his Monday afternoon campaign launch focused on his conservative independence from entrenched powers.
“I really am a team player,” he said in his opening speech. “It’s just that my team isn’t under the golden dome in Charleston or in Washington.”
At several points, he channeled the message of President Donald Trump, citing his “Make America Great Again” slogan, talking about the president’s popularity here and his interest in going to Washington to drain the proverbial swamp — although his background as a former health counsel at the Energy and Commerce Committee who became a health care lobbyist has opened him up to criticism from his primary opponent.
“Not long ago Morrisey was making millions in Washington after 18 years as a congressional staffer-turned-K Street lobbyist, trading on influence to line his own pockets with money from liberal special interests — the same ones whose bidding he did as a top aide on Capitol Hill,“ Jenkins campaign strategist Andy Sere said in a statement.
Jenkins entered the race on May 8, and the congressman from the Huntington-based 3rd District in southern West Virginia has already faced a barrage from a super PAC backing Morrisey.
During his stump speech outlining various conservative policy positions, Morrisey made a veiled reference to both Jenkins and Manchin arguing that he was “the only candidate in this race,” with a consistent record of work to stop funding Planned Parenthood.
There is a third announced GOP candidate, the former coal industry worker Bo Copley, who confronted both Manchin and then-Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton at a campaign roundtable last year.