Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

GOP poll shows Justice would be strongest Senate candidate

A new Republican poll indicates that West Virginia Republican Gov. Jim Justice has the best chance to win the U.S. Senate seat in 2024 now held by Democrat Joe Manchin.

Neither Justice nor Manchin has announced their plans for the next election, although Justice has said he is probably going to run for Senate. Second District Republican Rep. Alex Mooney has already announced he is running for the Senate seat.

The poll, conducted by the Tarrance Group, shows Justice leading Manchin 52-42. Justice is also ahead in a three-way race in the primary — 53% for Justice, 21% for Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and 16% for Mooney, with a margin of error of 4.1%.

The poll also shows Manchin ahead of Mooney 55-40 and Morrisey 52-42. Manchin defeated Morrisey by three points in the Senate race in 2018.

The poll was first reported by Burgess Everett in Politico.

These numbers are just a snapshot in time among voters who may not be thinking that much about the next election. They are indicative of a level of support, or lack thereof at the moment, but not much more, especially since only Mooney has formally declared.

“The data from this study shows that, across every single metric, Justice is far and away the strongest Republican candidate in the U.S. Senate race in West Virginia, and the only tested potential candidate who currently leads Manchin on a trial ballot test,” said the survey from the Tarrance Group.

What is more important is who commissioned the poll.

It was paid for by the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. A Republican operative told me the reason this poll showing Justice’s strength was released is because McConnell wants Justice to run and supports him.

McConnell’s leadership team, including Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana), the new chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, are committed to getting more involved in party primaries after the disappointing performances of several of the party nominees in the 2022 election.

In an interview last December, Daines said, “I will tell you this: If I have heard one thing since the last election … Republicans are sick of losing, and we’re gonna do whatever it takes to win. We want to make sure we have candidates that can win general elections.”

That means finding candidates who can avoid drama and who need the smallest check from the McConnell super PAC. Right now, McConnell and his team believe Justice fits that bill.

Where does this leave Mooney?

The Republican raised his profile significantly with a decisive 18-point win over veteran incumbent Republican David McKinley in the 2022 primary. He is also a strong conservative with votes to prove it, while Justice is more of a populist.

Those conservative bonafides help Mooney raise money and appeal to base voters, but it will be hard to topple a popular governor with deep pockets who will also have access to McConnell’s well-funded super PAC.

Meanwhile, Manchin remains a wildcard. If he runs for reelection, the West Virginia Senate race in 2024 will be a hard-fought race with national significance. If he is out, then whoever the Republican nominee is will have an easy path to the U.S. Senate.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.