SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Thousands of acres of abandoned mine lands and the streams they are polluting would get federal funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law enacted in November, Republican Rep. David B. McKinley told voters at a recent town hall-like meeting at Shepherd University.
"We have water wells that are being destroyed because it leaks into the system, it leaches into our water. It's in our streams. It's destroying it," McKinley said of the acidic drainage from the deserted coal mines.
Over the next five years, McKinley said he expects the law to provide more than $700 million to the Mountain State to help reclaim abandoned mine lands, improve water quality and allow for economic development.
That law, which McKinley supported along with both of West Virginia’s senators — Democrat Joe Manchin III and Republican Shelley Moore Capito — has also been praised by the state’s Republican governor, Jim Justice. Yet it has become a flashpoint as McKinley faces off in the May 10 Republican primary against Rep. Alex X. Mooney, who cites the law as an example of why McKinley “betrayed” the state.
“This is good for West Virginia,” McKinley said in an interview. “This is not a vote for anyone but West Virginia.”
Of the state's five-member congressional delegation — which is shrinking to four because of reapportionment, leading to the member-vs.-member primary — only Mooney and Republican Rep. Carol Miller voted against the infrastructure bill. Mooney declined a request for an interview. Miller said in an interview at the Capitol she does not have a preferred candidate in the race and "the person that the constituents want is who I think should win."
‘Please, vote for this bill’
McKinley said local officials were imploring him to vote for the bill.
“So for someone to vote against our abandoned mine lands, someone to vote against sewer and water lines, talk to these counties. That's why the governor came out in support of us,” McKinley said. “That's why the mayors and the county commissioners all asked me, ‘Make sure, please, vote for this bill.’ Was I going to say no because it wasn't politically expedient? Couldn't do it.”
McKinley is a civil engineer who campaigned on infrastructure when he was first elected to Congress in 2010 and saw two administrations — Republican Donald Trump's and Democrat Barack Obama's before him — come and go without passing a transformative piece of infrastructure legislation. So when the vote came to the House floor in November 2021, he voted for it despite a request that he not do that from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and a warning from the Trump camp.
“I'm gonna pass up 11 years? Finally we’re getting a vote,” McKinley said. “And that's where Kevin McCarthy and some of the other boys came over to me and said, ‘Can you just hold off? Give us another two years until we’re in the majority.’”
Still, McKinley said he would support McCarthy if the GOP wins back the House and McCarthy was the candidate for speaker.
“If Kevin McCarthy is the candidate, I’m going to be voting yes,” McKinley said.
West Virginia is in dire need of infrastructure improvements, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The group gave the state's infrastructure a "D" on its 2020 report card, noting that many existing public works are deteriorated and that new construction, replacement and repair efforts have not kept up with what is needed.
West Virginia would expect to get around $3.8 billion in formula funding for highways and bridges from the bill, according to the Department of Transportation, which notes there are 1,545 bridges and more than 3,222 miles of highway in poor condition in the state. West Virginia airports would get approximately $44 million over five years, DOT says.
The law also gave President Joe Biden a legislative victory his predecessors could not achieve. Representatives for Trump spoke with McKinley ahead of the vote, concerned he would defy the former president’s wishes.
“They said, ‘You know, if that happens, Trump is going to endorse your opponent,’” McKinley recounted.
That’s exactly what happened.
Trump backs opponent
On April 25, Trump reiterated his support for Mooney, calling him a “conservative warrior” and casting McKinley as a RINO, or "Republican in name only," who supported the “'Unfrastructure Bill'” and “Sham January 6 Unselect Committee.”
Trump is incorrect in saying McKinley voted for the Jan. 6 select committee, which was initially controlled by Speaker Nancy Pelosi; McKinley voted against it. He did vote for a 9/11-style commission to investigate the Capitol attack that would have had an even split between Republican and Democratic commissioners and required bipartisan agreement to issue subpoenas.
During Trump's presidency, McKinley supported the White House position on bills more often than Mooney, according to CQ Roll Call data. McKinley supported Trump’s public position on 155 votes and opposed him on 15, supporting him 91.1 percent of the time. Mooney supported Trump's position on 147 votes and opposed him on 23, backing him 86.4 percent of the time.
Mooney has been the stronger fundraiser in the race, spending $5.1 million through April 20 to McKinley's $1.9 million. On April 20, Mooney had $874,000 left to McKinley's $510,000.
Outside groups have also spent more than $1.9 million on the race, according to disclosures with the Federal Election Commission through April 28. Some $1.3 million combined went to help Mooney, either for positive promotion or attacks on McKinley. On the flip side, $519,000 was spent by outside groups attacking Mooney, and just $83,000 went to support McKinley.
Mooney and McKinley have both launched negative ads attacking each other. Mooney criticizes McKinley’s votes on infrastructure and the commission. McKinley calls out Mooney on allegations of carpetbagging and highlights that Mooney is being investigated by the House Ethics Committee for his campaign spending.
In a TV ad aired late in the race, McKinley was endorsed by Manchin, who said one of the attacks on McKinley by Mooney and "his out-of-state supporters" was an "outright lie," and that Mooney was "all about Alex Mooney, but West Virginians know David McKinley is all about us.”
The Democratic senator, who slammed the brakes on some of President Joe Biden's legislative priorities, has seen his popularity grow in the state, according to a Morning Consult poll. Mooney’s campaign, however, said on Twitter that the endorsement was “proof David McKinley is a complete and total RINO.”
At the recent town hall, some attendees were not thrilled with Mooney's representation.
William Stubblefield, a former Berkeley County commissioner, said he plans to support McKinley.
“He’s never here,” Stubblefield said of Mooney. “We never see him at a town hall meeting.”
Stubblefield said he was a Republican when he held office and is now an independent who has voted for both Manchin and Capito.
Carolyn Thomas, an independent voter who traditionally has voted for Democratic candidates aside from an instance when she voted for Capito, said she plans to vote for McKinley.
“Mooney is unresponsive,” said Thomas, a retired teacher in Jefferson County. “I disagree with all his policies.”
Thomas said it was significant that McKinley voted for the infrastructure bill.
“I think McKinley is open to really thinking about what is best for everybody, not just a blind allegiance,” she said.
McKinley has been endorsed by Mike Pompeo, secretary of State under Trump, and by Justice, the West Virginia governor. In addition to Trump, Mooney has collected support from such Trump loyalists as Reps. Ronny Jackson of Texas and Lauren Boebert of Colorado.
Before he moved to West Virginia in 2013, Mooney, 50, lived in Maryland, where he served as a state senator and GOP chair. Mooney lives in Charles Town on West Virginia's eastern panhandle. Mooney's chief of staff, Michael Hough, is a state senator in Maryland.
McKinley, 75, is a seventh-generation West Virginian who lives in the northern panhandle city of Wheeling. He was the West Virginia Republican chair and a member of the state House of Delegates.
Echoing the former president, Mooney told The Journal of Martinsburg that what separates him form his opponent was that Mooney was "a consistent supporter of conservative principles" who was endorsed by Trump while McKinley "voted for Nancy Pelosi’s January 6th Commission to investigate President Trump, as well as for Joe Biden’s NON-infrastructure bill."
McKinley told the paper that, “results versus rhetoric” separate him from Mooney. “I vote to make things better for West Virginia. He has a different style.”
Trump won the state with 68 percent of the vote in 2020, and after he made his endorsement, Mooney told talk radio host Hoppy Kercheval, “I think this endorsement from President Trump makes it basically impossible for him to win a primary against me.”
Even after enduring the former president’s retribution, McKinley still said he would support Trump in 2024 if he were on the ballot.
And while speaking to voters, McKinley said he doubted the 2020 presidential election results and called the election "tainted."
Asked whether Trump lost the 2020 presidential election or if it was stolen, McKinley said, “I'll never know. I'll never know.”
Ryan Kelly and Paul V. Fontelo contributed to this report.