West Virginia's high-stakes Senate race turns into a GOP proxy war

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Some of the most powerful forces in Republican politics are on course for an explosive — and expensive — collision in West Virginia’s Senate primary.

On one side, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-aligned super PAC, are pushing for Gov. Jim Justice, a former Democrat who switched parties in 2017, to jump into the race.

On the other, the big-spending anti-tax group Club for Growth just announced its support for Rep. Alex Mooney, a member of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, who has pledged to spend $10 million.

The jockeying by Washington power brokers signals the primary could be one of the most expensive in West Virginia history as Republicans target Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in a key battleground for control of the Senate. The Club for Growth is known to spend freely in GOP nominating contests, while McConnell and allies, stung by a crop of weak candidates in critical races last fall, have been proactive in shaping the 2024 map.

“I certainly wish I owned a TV station in the state of West Virginia for the 2024 cycle,” Conrad Lucas, former chair of the West Virginia GOP, told NBC News, alluding to the advertising blitz likely to blanket the state. “It’s very interesting to see this much attention happening this early. Typically, when there’s outside investment, it’s not this early.”

In particular, McConnell has made early moves to boost Justice. In February, he highlighted a poll commissioned by the Senate Leadership Fund showing the governor with a commanding lead in a hypothetical primary, telling Fox News that Justice’s advantage was “certainly good news for us” while he was in “a candidate recruitment period.”

Senate Leadership Funds spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair cited the poll Thursday when asked about the race, saying: “Justice would be the runaway favorite in both the primary and general election.”

Unlike last cycle — when a bitter feud between McConn, R-Ky., and former National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Rick Scott of Florida led to an incoherent party strategy — McConnell’s apparatus and the Senate GOP campaign chief appear to be rowing in the same direction this time. Committee Chair Steve Daines of Montana is “actively recruiting” Justice to run for Senate, a source familiar with the matter said.

A more recent survey conducted by the conservative consultancy group National Public Affairs that was released Tuesday the day the Club for Growth announced its support for Mooney showed Justice with a 31-point edge over Mooney in a head-to-head race. Even more, the survey of Republican primary voters, conducted in mid-March with a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points, found Justice with virtually 100% name recognition and a high favorability rating. Mooney’s popularity was lower, and a third of GOP voters either had no opinion or had never heard of him.

Justin Clark, founder of NPA who served in prominent roles on former President Donald Trump's 2016 and 2020 campaigns, said the most surprising element of the survey “was the extreme popularity of Gov. Justice right now.”

“I mean, this is a guy who switched parties,” Clark said. “This is a guy who’s gotten into some tussles with the state legislature at times. Justice is a guy who you wouldn’t necessarily think we’d be as wildly popular as he appears to be.”

Additionally, Clark said Mooney — who bested then-Rep. David McKinley in a contested member-versus-member primary last year with former President Donald Trump’s backing — has not seen much “residual” impact in his survey numbers. Clark said his group tested potential attacks on the candidates and “none of those really land on” Justice.

“They are going to have to take [Justice] down significantly, like losing his numbers in an incredible way,” Clark said. “That’s very difficult to do. It’s going to take a ton of money to do it. To move his numbers like that, it’s going to be a monumental feat. And I just don’t see it right now.”

“They are going to have to take [Justice] down significantly,” Clark said, adding: “It’s going to take a ton of money to do it. To move his numbers like that, it’s going to be a monumental feat. And I just don’t see it right now."

And yet, there’s a creeping fear among some pro-Justice Republicans that they could fumble a layup — specifically that the Club for Growth’s endorsement could drive away Justice and risk their best shot at finally defeating Manchin after failing three times in the ruby-red state. Manchin has not yet confirmed whether he will seek reelection, but Republicans who spoke with NBC News expect he will run.

A national Republican strategist said the Club for Growth’s financial pledge for Mooney appears designed “to scare Jim Justice” out of running, as the group sought to do with former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who bowed out of a Senate bid. But the strategist said they don’t expect it to work on Justice, given his strong early advantages in a primary.

“It’s a Trump-plus-40 state. If we don’t win that one we’re not winning anywhere else,” the strategist said. “Without West Virginia, there is no Republican majority next cycle.”

Meanwhile, Club for Growth PAC President David McIntosh called Mooney a “conservative champion,” vowing that the deep-pocketed organization will “do whatever it takes to make sure he’s elected.” In February, McIntosh said Justice is “in what we would call the moderate camp” and made clear his conservative group “wouldn’t support him in the primary.”

Asked to comment on the GOP primary, NRSC spokesman Mike Berg said, “We’re confident West Virginia voters will nominate a candidate who can win both a primary and a general election.”

The Club for Growth does have recent experience lifting a lesser-known candidate over a well-known ex-governor. In last year’s midterm election, the Club for Growth helped boost then-Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., the eventual general election winner, over former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, even though McCrory enjoyed a substantial polling advantage early in the cycle. But Lucas said the dynamics at play in West Virginia, a much smaller state than North Carolina, make it difficult to compare the two. And, unlike McCrory, Justice still occupies the governor’s mansion.

“We’re very relationship-based,” Lucas said. “In West Virginia, your retail [politics] still matters. And Justice is so well-liked that changing opinions of West Virginians is difficult whenever they feel that they have such a personal relationship with their own governor.”

Justice has previously expressed that he is “seriously considering” a run, and one West Virginia Republican predicted that with state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announcing a gubernatorial bid, Justice could declare his Senate candidacy within eight weeks. (Morrisey, who was also seen as a potential Senate candidate, jumped into the governor's race with a Club for Growth endorsement.)

But this person added that Justice should prepare for a substantial primary fight versus Mooney no matter what the polling says now.

“Justice loves a fight, man,” this person said. “He likes campaigns. He likes the challenge. He just does. But Justice has never really been substantially challenged in the primary.”

This person noted that a significant portion of the state has yet to familiarize itself with Mooney, who relocated from Maryland in 2013 and has represented districts in Congress encompassing the eastern and northern portions of West Virginia.

“Mooney’s never even run in the southern part of the state, so they don’t know him at all. There’s room to grow there,” this person said, adding current polling comes “before a single red cent has been spent, which I think is going to start kicking off here very soon.”

The Trump factor remains an open question. The former president has previously endorsed Justice, who announced his party switch alongside him in 2017, and multiple Republicans who spoke with NBC News noted the two have a strong relationship. But Trump also backed Mooney last year in a primary contest the former president was keyed into. Plus, Trump has repeatedly denigrated both McConnell and the Club for Growth in recent months.

“Look, Trump endorsed Mooney in his last race versus McKinley. Trump is buddies with Justice,” this person said. “But how can he go against a Freedom Caucus guy when the Freedom Caucus is one of his biggest defenders out there and he’s trying to run a national campaign?”

Spokespeople for Justice and Mooney did not respond to requests for comment.

Republicans are as focused on West Virginia as they are in part because of its importance in regaining the Senate majority. Manchin’s seat, along with Ohio and Montana seats currently held by Democrats that are up in 2024, are seen as the three most promising targets for the GOP to recapture.

Manchin, for his part, recognizes the hurdles he faces. He has said he’s in no rush to make a decision and might even wait until December to finalize his plans. He has mused about facing Justice in a general election, saying he’s friends with the governor and his family and that he’d want a clean, issues-focused campaign without negative attacks if they square off.

More recently, Manchin has raised eyebrows by keeping the door open to a presidential run on an independent ticket, in tandem with the centrist group No Labels. It would be a quixotic move, all but guaranteed to fail, with the rise of negative partisanship further entrenching the two-party system. Manchin insists he’s frustrated with the extremes of both parties, a message he may ultimately use to run for re-election to the Senate.

Even with national forces descending on the Mountain State for its Republican primary, Clark said he ultimately believes “this is going to be a very local race.”

“And I think anyone on the ground who starts to turn this into a D.C. proxy war,” he said, “is going to regret that.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com