Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin squared off Thursday against Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in West Virginia’s first — and only — Senate debate. But it was a third name that never left the room: President Donald Trump.
Ahead of Trump’s third Make America Great Again rally in West Virginia on Friday, Morrisey came out on the attack and tried to demonstrate how he plans to be in Trump’s corner. Manchin, who has a reputation for working as a moderate independent in a highly partisan Congress, said he wants to work across the aisle and even with the president.
“Our president — whether you voted for him or not he’s the president of the United States — I want him to succeed and do well. And I’ll stand up and support him when it’s good for West Virginia — and when it’s not, I stand up to him,” Manchin said.
“He said he was open to Donald Trump, but when the key judgment came in 2016, he said no to Donald Trump,” Morrisey said. “He made his bed with Hillary Clinton.”
“Hillary Clinton’s not on the ballot,” Manchin shot back. “Manchin and Pat Morrisey are. Pat, I’m right here.”
West Virginia supported Trump over Clinton by an overwhelming 42 points in the 2016 presidential election, and as president, Trump has continued to hold high approval ratings in the state. But despite Trump’s landslide victory in the Mountain State, the Senate race has remained highly competitive.
In Thursday’s debate, the two candidates sparred over the hot button issues of abortion rights, immigration and health care.
But the first question posed by moderator Hoppy Kercheval, a West Virginia political radio host, focused on Trump’s rhetoric in the aftermath of a mass shooting that targeted a synagogue in nearby Pittsburgh.
Manchin said the president’s tone “needs to be tamped down.”
“I hope that he can tone down the rhetoric, I hope that he can tone down the tweets,” Manchin said. He called the current political climate “tribal.”
Morrisey denounced anti-Semitism but then called any finger-pointing toward the president’s rhetoric “crass.”
Sitting side by side, the debate was at times testy as the two candidates debated about their personal connections to the pharmaceutical industry, which is seen as an enemy in a state that has been ravaged by the opioid crisis. West Virginia has the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the nation in 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Manchin accused Morrisey of profiting off of the pharmaceutical industry: “This is the only man who has profited from pills coming to West Virginia,” Manchin said.
Morrisey accused Manchin of not being an effective leader on the issue and touted his work as attorney general on the issue.
“We have taken on the problem, we have gone after root causes of the epidemic and we have won record-breaking settlements,” Morrisey said.
Manchin has made health care the cornerstone of his campaign, and slammed Morrisey for his role in a federal lawsuit, filed along with other states, that would overturn the Affordable Care Act and eliminate protections for people with pre-exisiting conditions.
Morrisey said he wants to protect people with pre-exisitng conditions, but Manchin reminded him of wanting to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“He professes repeal, repeal, repeal, and he gladly files a lawsuit that would take 800,000 people out of coverage,” Manchin said.
While the southern border is hundreds of miles away, both Morrisey and Manchin weighed in on the immigration debate and said they support tightening up the borders. Neither, however, would say if they support Trump’s call to end birthright citizenship.
“I think the president is right to not only send the troops but clamp down on the border,” Morrisey said. “I think we need to reform our immigration system, we need to end this chain migration and have merit-based immigration, no amnesty.”
Manchin also said he would be tough on immigration: “I’m against sanctuary cities, I’ve clamped down, I don’t think illegals should be able to come here and set up shop.”
On birthright citizenship, Manchin said it’s “worthy of looking at,” but said the president could not enact it by executive order.
The candidates were also asked for their positions on Amendment 1, an initiative that would end abortions and abortion funding in the state. Manchin said he would not be supporting the initiative, although he is anti-abortion, because it does not have exceptions for incest, rape or the life of the mother. Morrisey said he opposes any taxpayer funding for abortion, and accused Manchin of being on “both sides” of the abortion debate.
The Supreme Court has long been a leading issue in the social conservative leaning state. Manchin was the lone Democratic senator who voted in favor of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. He defended himself against criticism on the timing of his vote — as he’s received criticism for appearing to wait until after Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, cast the deciding ballot to announce his decision.
“I was the first to ask for an FBI investigation, I went through every word of that investigation,” Manchin said. “The vote is the vote; nothing was going to change.”
Morrisey pounced on his answer: “He went to powder in the bathroom and left and allowed Maine to decide West Virginia’s vote.”
After the debate, when asked by ABC News about how that vote has been received in the state, Manchin said he thinks people understand he did his job.
“It wasn’t a political decision. I’m the only Democrat who stood for it and had done it,” Manchin said.
The race, while close, is currently leaning in Manchin’s favor. Before the debate began, a spokesperson for a major Republican political PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, confirmed to ABC News that after spending millions on the race it has stopped airing commercials for Morrisey and is instead sending $150,000 for get out the vote efforts.
Trump will hold a rally for Morrisey on Friday in Huntington, West Virginia. At least one Trump tuned into the debate — the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted he watched.
Throughout the camapign, Manchin has hit Morrisey on his time working in Washington and his New Jersey ties.
“I don’t think Patrick’s lying. I don’t think he’s dishonest. I think he’s confused and he doesn’t understand West Virginia because he hasn’t been here that long,” Manchin said.
In his closing, Morrisey accused Manchin, not him, of having “New Jersey values.”