‘Waste of a seat’: Manchin’s succession becomes a magnet for anti-establishment Republicans

KEARNEYSVILLE, West Virginia — Ted Cruz has a competitive reelection race to run back in Texas. On Thursday, though, he showed up 1,200 miles away in a bid to shape Senate Republicans’ post-Mitch McConnell future.

Cruz was in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle to try to boost an underdog conservative, Rep. Alex Mooney, who faces Gov. Jim Justice in the May 14 GOP primary. Justice is the Senate minority leader’s star recruit, hand-picked to pressure Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) into retirement and make the seat Republicans’ easiest pickup on this fall’s map.

Yet to Cruz, Mooney’s candidacy is a way to push the entire party rightward — and make life more of a nightmare for party leaders. A longtime House Freedom Caucus member, Mooney is running as an insurgent from the right, while Justice is a more conciliatory ex-Democrat who has supported bipartisan compromises.

“How many of y’all have been frustrated by Republicans in the Senate? I’m going to raise my hand. It is maddening,” Cruz told a crowd of nearly 200 people in a sweltering horse auction center, likening many politicians to spineless animals. “One more conservative makes an enormous difference in the Senate.”

Mooney trails Justice badly, according to nearly all public polling, but his candidacy is a way to survey the GOP base about the anti-establishment sentiment that’s spiking among congressional Republicans. Cruz is looking for new recruits to the rabble-rousing crew of GOP senators who thrive on causing headaches for party leaders — so whether or not Mooney beats Justice, and he’s not likely to, Cruz’s endorsement stamps him as a favorite of the insurgent wing.

The same sort of longshot right-flank rebellion is also happening in the House where Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) is trying to oust a speaker who looks on paper like her natural conservative ally. But Mooney and Greene have the same problem: The party establishment now includes former President Donald Trump, who has sided with the enemies they decry as out of touch with real conservatives.

Mooney is “going to be crushed,” said former Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.), a Justice supporter who lost to Mooney in a 2022 House primary due to Trump’s endorsement.

Either Republican candidate is essentially guaranteed to win the seat in November given Manchin’s retirement, making West Virginia a perfect test case for the party’s red-state mood. Mooney is eager to make the primary a contest of ideologies — a rarity in a Senate cycle where nearly every other GOP contest has hinged on who can compete best in a general election.

Mooney is trying to generate momentum any way he can, including the release of internal polling and a Mountain State visit from Cruz. Mooney has even resorted to using Justice’s Internet famous pet “Baby Dog” against him, claiming that the bulldog who’s ubiquitous in the governor’s messaging knows the truth about him.

“Baby Dog knows Gov. Justice as good as anybody. He knows the man’s a liberal,” Mooney said in an interview. Justice’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Mooney opposed sending more U.S. aid to Ukraine and voted against the bipartisan House government spending bill. He beat McKinley two years ago in part because — in the defeated man’s telling — Trump was irate enough about McKinley’s vote for a bipartisan infrastructure bill to endorse Mooney, who opposed that legislation. Mooney also weathered attacks on his Maryland lineage to win that race.

Pro-Mooney conservatives are particularly frustrated over a potential missed opportunity to change the complexion of the Senate GOP after bitter internal splits over funding Ukraine, government spending and reauthorizing warrantless foreign surveillance. John Fredericks, a pro-Trump conservative radio host from Virginia and a Mooney supporter, said electing Justice amounts to a “complete waste of a seat” for the GOP.

Yet Fredericks and Cruz are exceptions in a Republican Party that’s wary of crossing Trump. Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) are the only chamber Republicans siding against Justice. And the conservative Club for Growth did not follow through with its pledge to pour $10 million in the race, spending only about $1.8 million, according to media tracking firm AdImpact.

David McIntosh, president for Club for Growth Action, said the group believes “Mooney is the best conservative for the seat, but President Trump’s endorsement hardened Justice’s support and there wasn’t a viable path forward.”

“They committed. I guess they looked at poll numbers and they canceled,” said Fredericks, who drove his “MAGA Bus” to the event here. “You believe in your candidates or you don’t. And they obviously don’t.”

Mooney declined to criticize the conservative Club, which often plays in red-state primaries but is trying to rebuild its ties to Trump. He did concede the cavalry did not come for him in a primary where total GOP spending is relatively low for an open seat — around $13 million — and a few extra million could have made a huge difference.

“People are missing it,” Mooney said. “It’s not just Club for Growth. There’s a lot of groups out there that exist to help conservatives.”

Mooney does not currently plan to vote to oust Speaker Mike Johnson this week, a sign he’s got a practical side as well. Still, there’s little debate among the top Senate brass that Justice would be more of a team player, in the mold of more pragmatic center-right Republicans who could form a GOP governing wing in 2025. That will probably be helpful for McConnell’s successor as Republican leader.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who backs Justice and often is open to bipartisan dealmaking, said Justice was “initially perceived and known to be the stronger candidate, and now it’s going to be what kind of senator he would become. And I feel very comfortable with that.”

In one of the reddest states in the country, it’s something of a surprise that West Virginia GOP voters aren’t reflexively seeking the most conservative candidate in the race. Still, the state party is filled with thousands of former Democrats who don’t adhere neatly to ideological lines — just like Justice, who gave Trump an early triumph in 2017 when he switched parties live on stage.

If there’s a bright side for Mooney, it’s that Trump is not directly rallying voters against him. In addition, Justice’s campaign appears to be taking Mooney less than seriously, giving the dark horse the stage to himself at times. On the other hand, the lack of activity suggests Justice believes he’s heading for a landslide win.

“Why go out and mess it up?” Manchin observed.

Still, a West Virginia trip was a no-brainer for Cruz. He’s maintained his own brand in the party even after running against Trump in 2016 and then becoming an ally by championing several candidates who put him at odds with the former president.

Unlike Mooney, Cruz won’t quite describe Justice as “Manchin 2.0;” Justice is likely to be his colleague, after all. But Cruz is clear about how important the race is for his mission to drive his party further rightward.

People “are frustrated that the Senate Republican Conference doesn’t stand up and fight for conservative principles. The only way to change that is to elect strong conservatives. And especially from bright-red states,” Cruz said. “There’s no reason not to.”

Ally Mutnick contributed to this report.