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2 Republican incumbents face off in West Virginia's primary on Tuesday

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

West Virginia voters head to the polls tomorrow. Because of redistricting, the state has lost a congressional seat. And so two Republican incumbents will square off in a primary. As NPR's Dave Mistich reports, the race is being framed around the candidates' allegiance to former President Trump.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: Congressman David McKinley is meeting with local officials in Parkersburg, W.V. He's here to talk infrastructure and, more specifically, broadband.

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DAVID MCKINLEY: What can we do from Congress to make it? We can see we got great plans, but if we don't have people to carry it out, it's not going to happen.

MISTICH: Last year McKinley was one of only 13 House Republicans to support the infrastructure package. When I ask about that vote, McKinley pulls out a report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers, noting West Virginia's low marks for roads, water systems, broadband and other aspects of infrastructure.

MCKINLEY: If your son or daughter came home from school with a report card of Ds and Fs, wouldn't you want to do something?

MISTICH: Though the law will bring more than $4 billion in funding to West Virginia, it's put McKinley, an engineer himself, on the defensive this election cycle.

MCKINLEY: This wasn't a vote for Biden. It wasn't a vote for Pelosi or anyone else. This is a vote for West Virginia.

MISTICH: McKinley has also played up his ties to Trump, mentioning his voting record with the former president and featuring Trump in campaign ads. But his opponent, Representative Alex Mooney, a Maryland native who first won in West Virginia in 2014, has one thing that McKinley doesn't.

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ALEX MOONEY: President Trump endorsed me in my race because he wants someone who's going to stand up and actually fight for the values of our country, not go along to get along with the Democrats as, frankly, too many RINO Republicans do.

MISTICH: That's Mooney speaking at a Trump rally last week in Pennsylvania. During a short speech, Mooney took aim at McKinley for the infrastructure vote and for supporting an independent commission tasked with investigating the January 6 riot. Though that specific effort failed, it's still been fodder for Mooney in this primary.

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MOONEY: My opponent is a total RINO. He voted for the January 6 Commission to investigate Donald Trump and his allies.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Booing).

MISTICH: Trump's endorsement of Mooney has given him an obvious boost in a state dominated by the former president. But Republican Governor Jim Justice, a longtime ally of Trump, and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin have both endorsed McKinley. And there are those, like 36-year-old middle school teacher Andrew Ashley of Parkersburg, who have backed away from many Republican candidates since Trump took hold. Ashley says this GOP race was an easy decision.

ANDREW ASHLEY: It was pretty much either going to be Mooney or McKinley. So I voted against Mooney by voting for McKinley.

MISTICH: He also says McKinley's vote for the infrastructure package went a long way for him.

ASHLEY: I think he was once saying before he goes, even though this is a Democrat bill, this is still something that would be very helpful for the state of West Virginia.

MISTICH: GOP insiders across the district, like Wood County Executive Committee chair and Trump backer Rob Cornelius, admit West Virginia does need funding for infrastructure. But the optics on that vote, Cornelius says, make it difficult for McKinley.

ROB CORNELIUS: Voters change. The calculus of getting elected changes. And what people want now is frankly a lot louder, a lot more shrill than it was in 2010 or 2012, period. It's a different time.

MISTICH: Cornelius says races like this one aren't about policy or governing. And the past two presidential elections show Trump's rhetorical style appeals to many voters here. Whether that's enough to sway this primary remains to be seen. But given the GOP's recent dominance in West Virginia, whoever wins tomorrow is likely headed back to Washington for another term. Dave Mistich, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONOBO'S "CIRRUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Mistich
Originally from Washington, W.Va., Dave Mistich joined NPR part-time as an associate producer for the Newcast unit in September 2019 — after nearly a decade of filing stories for the network as a Member station reporter at West Virginia Public Broadcasting. In July 2021, he also joined the Newsdesk as a part-time reporter.