Republican Gov. Jim Justice officially jumped into the West Virginia Senate race Thursday, setting up a hotly contested Republican primary in a key race in the fight for Senate control and a possible bid against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
“I want to tell you that tonight I am officially announcing my candidacy for the United States Senate. And I absolutely will promise you, to God above it, I will do the job, and I will do the job that will make you proud,” Justice said at an announcement event Thursday.
As a popular two-term governor who can leverage his vast personal wealth, Justice gives the GOP a formidable recruit in a state that’s critical to its path to the Senate majority. Republicans see West Virginia as a top pickup opportunity in a state former President Donald Trump won by almost 40 points in 2020 — regardless of whether Manchin chooses to run for re-election.
A Manchin bid would set up a high-profile clash — he has served two decades in statewide office, winning elections despite the state’s rightward political drift. If he chooses not to run again, Democrats would face a tall task defending the seat from whoever wins the Republican primary.
Against that backdrop, some party leaders have already lined up behind Justice.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Steve Daines, R-Mont., cheered Justice in a statement, calling him “a proven winner whose record of creating jobs, cutting taxes, and fighting for conservative values has made him one of the most popular governors in the country.”
The GOP super PAC Senate Leadership Fund, which is aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also signaled that it views Justice as a strong contender.
“More than any other Republican in the state, he is far and away the best candidate to take on and retire the sellout that Joe Manchin has sadly become,” Steven Law, the group’s president, said in a statement.
Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., both spoke at Justice’s event, lauding him and saying they hoped he’d be their Senate colleague.
“We’re really going to make a good pair up in Washington,” Capito said before Justice took the stage.
Graham told reporters before the event that he likes Manchin but would “rather have a Republican who’s gonna be a more reliable vote,” he said. “Joe Manchin is a wonderful fellow. I think Jim Justice is a winner.”
But Justice won’t have a coronation for the Republican nomination. The GOP primary is expected to be costly and divisive, and the fight has already begun.
GOP Rep. Alex Mooney, who jumped into the Senate race in November, launched a new TV ad ahead of Justice’s announcement Thursday, labeling him as “liberal Jim Justice.” The 30-second spot knocked Justice’s policies on the Covid pandemic and taxes and featured a clip of Justice awkwardly donning a mask.
Justice responded in kind, playing a video at his announcement event that said: “The stakes of this U.S. Senate race are high. We can’t trust our future to an all-talk, no-action D.C. politician,” with an image of Mooney on the screen.
The conservative Club for Growth PAC has endorsed Mooney, and its president, David McIntosh said this month that the PAC could spend more than $10 million in the primary.
“West Virginia voters want a principled conservative like Alex Mooney who will fight the out-of-control spending and woke policies coming from Washington. The fact is Jim Justice is Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked candidate, and would support the reckless spending that Manchin voted for and more,” McIntosh said in a statement.
Outside groups have already started spending in the race. Senate Leadership Fund’s nonprofit arm, One Nation, launched a TV ad last week targeting Manchin. Democrats responded with Duty and Honor, a nonprofit arm of the Democratic group Senate Majority PAC, launching a TV ad labeling Manchin as a “commonsense senator.”
The early missives underscore how West Virginia will be pivotal in the battle for the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of just one or two seats to take control of the chamber, depending on whether they win the White House, because the vice president casts tiebreaking votes.
Trump could shake up the primary race if he decides to back one of the candidates. And both Mooney and Justice have been vying for Trump’s endorsement.
Justice spoke to Trump by phone ahead of his announcement Thursday, said a source familiar with the conversation. Justice, a former Democrat, announced his party switch at a Trump rally in 2017, and he has emphasized his close relationship with the Trumps, even having gone hunting with Donald Trump Jr. on his property in recent years.
Trump endorsed Mooney over former GOP Rep. David McKinley in last year’s 2nd District primary. But it’s not clear how Mooney’s Club for Growth endorsement could affect Trump’s thinking, because he has been feuding with the group.
Mooney recently said that he hopes to earn Trump’s endorsement again but if he doesn’t, he hopes Trump stays out of the race.
Democrats pointed to the tone of the nascent primary as they ready a bid against the Republicans.
“West Virginia’s GOP Senate primary is going to be a nasty, messy and expensive fight and whichever candidate manages to hobble out of their intraparty battle will be damaged and out of step with the voters who will decide the general election,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Amanda Sherman Baity said in a statement.
Manchin, meanwhile, has said he will decide his political future at the end of the year. And he hasn’t ruled out running for president as part of a centrist ticket, tied to the group No Labels.
Manchin said in a statement that he is “laser focused on doing the job West Virginians elected me to do,” later adding, “But make no mistake, I will win any race I enter.”
He he two-term senator also weighed in on the GOP primary, telling reporters at the Capitol that he has not spoken to Justice about the race but noting that the Republican contest will be “interesting.”
“Let the games begin,” Manchin said.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com