The conservative Manchin challenger who won’t get out of the way

Rep. Alex Mooney is "disappointed" that the Republican establishment is supporting Jim Justice. That doesn't mean he plans to step aside.

The Republican establishment wants nothing to do with Alex Mooney. Frankly, he’s a bit miffed about it.

Since the West Virginia representative announced his Senate campaign last fall, senior Republicans and the National Republican Senatorial Committee went out of their way to anoint Gov. Jim Justice as their pick to topple Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. Then Justice racked up endorsements, a leadership-backed fundraiser — and most importantly, a big lead in the polls.

But any hope of Mooney exiting quietly is now meeting reality. And surprisingly, the 52-year-old Freedom Caucus stalwart argues he should have been the party’s guy all along.

“I thought I’d be the NRSC-backed candidate … I’ve been a good, team-playing conservative Republican,” Mooney said in an interview. “We’ll have to see to what extent the NRSC continues to be involved. Obviously they’ve hosted some things for Mr. Justice, which I frankly am disappointed in.”

Top Senate Republicans are putting their thumbs on the scale in some states to support primary candidates they think are best equipped to defeat Democratic incumbents. No state is more important than West Virginia. Taking back Manchin’s seat in the deep-red state is a vital first step in the party’s drive to reclaim the Senate next year — if Republicans win the White House, it’s the only pick-up they need to flip the chamber.

Which makes Mooney a major obstacle to his own party leaders, with backing from pugnacious conservative groups and senators. If he manages to catch fire, he could force the GOP to spend money on a race that party leaders think could be a cakewalk with Justice as the nominee.

“There is no scenario by which I won’t be on the ballot on May 14,” Mooney vowed, referring to the date of the state’s GOP primary.

While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell started wooing Justice for a Senate bid last fall, Mooney got in just a week after the midterms and landed financial backing from the conservative Club for Growth. That gives him a leg up over fellow Freedom Caucus member Rep. Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.), who is likely to launch a primary run against NRSC-backed candidate Tim Sheehy. Rosendale is struggling to get support from the Club as he seeks a rematch against Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

Notably, Mooney isn’t using the same scorched-earth tactics as Rosendale, who opposed Kevin McCarthy’s bid for the speakership and is attacking Sheehy as a McConnell lackey. Mooney won’t rule out supporting McConnell as Senate GOP leader and has nothing against him, though he lamented that McConnell wouldn’t meet with him about the race.

Mooney also revealed that he and NRSC Chair Steve Daines (R-Mont.) met separately and got along fine, stoking his disappointment when Daines backed Justice.

Ideologically speaking, the five-term congressman is something of a tea party throwback. He still wants to repeal Obamacare, for example, and argues that if Justice wins he will disappoint the state’s voters when it counts — recalling the late Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) famous thumbs-down for repeal of Democrats’ signature health care law.

He also sees the party’s pro-Justice effort as misguided given that “either one of us” can take down Manchin, making the primary more important than ever.

“I’m actually more likely to beat [Manchin] because I show a difference between the two” candidates, Mooney said. “I’m a conservative and Joe Manchin and Jim Justice are liberals.”

Mooney asserted that Justice and Manchin are “essentially the same,” in part because they share West Virginia strategist Larry Puccio as a political adviser.

“I think Manchin supports Jim Justice and wants him to take the seat,” Mooney said.

Those comments elicited a counter-punch from Justice, a wealthy coal magnate and popular governor who ran as a Democrat in 2016 before switching parties and winning as a Republican.

“Alex Mooney is the only RINO in this race for taking $13.5 million from the Trump-hating Club for NO Growth. But unsurprising for someone so insignificant and ineffective representing West Virginia in Congress,” Justice campaign manager Roman Stauffer said.

In response, Club for Growth president David McIntosh called Justice “a big government RINO, McConnell’s hand-picked candidate, and he only changed his party identification because it was politically advantageous.”

Mooney is fresh off defeating former Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) in a tough member-versus-member race last year, despite McKinley’s relentless attacks on Mooney’s previous political career in Maryland. But he had support from former President Donald Trump in that race and appears unlikely to repeat the feat. A Trump endorsement of Justice, if it comes, could be a knockout blow in the Senate primary.

In addition to the Club for Growth, Mooney has backing from more than two dozen state legislators, some of whom tangled with Justice in the statehouse over policy. Mooney’s fan club of senators is smaller but includes influential conservatives: Sens. Mike Lee of Utah, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky all support him.

Paul is even willing to throw haymakers at Justice, whose nickname is “Big Jim,” on Mooney’s behalf.

“The governor has got a lot of health issues and is not very mobile. There’s a question of how he’ll be able to serve given his health,” Paul said.

The Justice camp did not specifically respond to Paul’s comment.

The NRSC declined to comment on Mooney’s complaints. Daines said in a statement that Justice “is a proven winner” and touted the governor’s popularity in the state.

“West Virginians are extremely fond of Jim Justice. He remains the best candidate to defeat Joe Manchin,” said Torunn Sinclair, a spokesperson for the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund.

That super PAC polled the race in February and found Justice up big over both Mooney and Manchin, with Mooney trailing the Democratic senator in a head-to-head. Since then, several other polls have shown Justice with a significant lead over Mooney, raising confidence within GOP leadership.

Meanwhile, Manchin is enjoying a GOP primary slugfest that could ultimately benefit him.

Polls “show him at an advantage” in the general election, Manchin said of Justice. “But I just don’t believe polls a whole lot.”

“The only thing I’ve ever known about politics after 40 years is you run scared or unopposed. He’s not unopposed,” Manchin said of Justice. He also said West Virginians have “gotten over” Mooney’s past career in Maryland politics.

Mooney assessed Manchin’s own chances more bluntly: “Dude can’t win.”

Democrats are making no plans to give up on the state unless Manchin retires. They see Justice’s liabilities, from his opaque wealth to his coal empire’s legal woes, as fodder to help tilt the race away from the governor. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is also suing Justice to compel release of his work schedule.

Still, Democrats bet that Manchin has a better shot if Mooney gains steam. That’s a nightmare scenario for Republicans, who fear nominating Mooney could give the Democrat a fighting chance.

So has anyone tried to convince Mooney to go back home to West Virginia’s Second District and let Justice romp?

“I don’t need to repeat private conversations I have with other people. I kick around ideas with all sorts of folks, but I just make it clear: I’m running,” Mooney said. “People question it, but I just tell them I have a plan to win.”

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