West Virginia voters must pick from GOP candidates who dispute 2020 election outcome

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — When West Virginia Republicans vote in Tuesday’s primary, they will have a hard time finding a major candidate on the ballot in any statewide race who openly acknowledges that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

Embracing or skirting the line on election denialism has become an unspoken checkoff among Republicans running for governor and Congress in one of the states most loyal to former President Donald Trump. What is spoken — almost constantly — is praise for the party’s presumptive White House nominee from a slate of candidates that includes a convicted Jan. 6 insurrectionist as well as the sons of two GOP members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation.

Glenn Elliott, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for an open Senate seat, said denying the election outcome was a “purity test” for West Virginia Republicans.

“You’re either with the leader of the party on everything, or you’re kicked out. You’re not a Republican anymore, you’re a ‘RINO,’” he said, using the acronym for “Republicans In Name Only.” “That’s not a party — that’s a cult.”

It’s about the worst thing you can call a Republican candidate in West Virginia.

In the crowded governor’s race, Secretary of State Mac Warner has said he “firmly” believes, like Trump, that the election was stolen, even though dozens of courts and audits have determined the race was fairly decided in Biden’s favor.

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Warner, whose office oversees West Virginia’s elections, has said tech companies, the media and federal intelligence officials worked together to cover up incriminating information found on the laptop of Biden’s son Hunter. Warner’s statements came a few months after announcing his campaign after years of toeing the line on the 2020 election. The Army veteran said his views have nothing to do with running for office.

“Donald Trump won West Virginia in a landslide,” former state lawmaker Moore Capito, another candidate for governor, said in response to a question from The Associated Press. “And I just wish that the rest of the country would run our elections like we do here in the state of West Virginia.”

Other candidates hedge or do not answer directly.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has refused to provide a yes or no answer to questions about whether Biden won the 2020 race but has asserted that there were “huge irregularities,” “significant irregularities,” and “very, very severe issues” relating to that vote.

Businessman Chris Miller, also a candidate for governor and the son of U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, said people do not trust mail-in ballots. He did not say whether he thought Biden was the legitimate winner.

“If you are voting in-person and see your vote cast, that’s one thing,” he said. With mail-in ballots, he added, “You can’t see it. You don’t know what’s happened, and that’s the danger.”

Derrick Evans, a former state lawmaker who spent three months in prison for participating in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, has escalated his verbal attacks against his primary rival. He calls Carol Miller a “commie RINO” who “refused to stand and fight with President Trump,” as well as an “undocumented Democrat.”

Never mind that Miller was aligned with Trump in almost 100% of her House votes while he was in office.

Evans, in an interview, said he believes his willingness to stand by Trump and say the election was stolen will carry him to victory — even though Miller, hours after Evans and other rioters had stormed the Capitol, voted to challenge the Electoral College results in two states Biden won.

She said in a statement at the time that she had a constitutional duty to “ensure that all Americans have access to free, fair, and accurate elections.”

Evans is undeterred, claiming his role in the violent attack on the Capitol as a badge of honor.

“I think when the people learn I’m the only elected legislator in the entire country who had the courage to stand up against the stolen election and had the courage to stand up beside of President Trump on Jan. 6,” he said, “I think that that makes them realize very seriously that I am the guy to represent this district on a national stage.”

In an email to the AP, Carol Miller did not directly address the 2020 result. But she said she is the only candidate in the race who “has never been a registered Democrat or run for office as a Democrat.”

In the West Virginia governor’s race, all four major candidates are in lockstep on supporting the state’s coal industry, imposing stiffer penalties for fentanyl dealers and the importance of economic development.

Morrisey, the fundraising front-runner, tossed the “RINO” label at Capito, who is regarded as his main competitor. Morrissey cited a February 2024 social media post from Donald Trump Jr. criticizing a vote by Capito’s mother, Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, to send aid to Ukraine. “She’s not up for reelection this year, but her RINO son is running for Governor of West Virginia,” Trump Jr. said. “MAGA – Send a message to the Ukraine First RINOs & OPPOSE,” he said, referring to Donald Trump’s “Make American Great Again” movement.

Morrisey, in an interview, connected the dots.

“I think the choice is very clear: You have a conservative fighter with a record of getting big things done, and you have members of political royalty, part of the liberal establishment,” Morrisey said.

Moore Capito has since taken every opportunity to make sure voters know where his loyalty lies. In a Republican gubernatorial forum hosted by television station WSAZ, candidates were asked what they could do to help people on fixed incomes struggling to pay their bills amid frequent utility rate increases.

“That’s why it’s incredibly important that we elect Donald Trump as president,” Capito said, after condemning a recently released Biden administration rule that would force coal-fired power plants to capture their emissions or shut down.

Ironically, Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who is running for the Senate seat held by retiring Democrat Joe Manchin, is the only candidate to garner the coveted Trump endorsement in any primary race. And Justice has disagreed with Trump more than most candidates. For example, the governor supported the bipartisan infrastructure act that poured millions of dollars into the state to build out broadband and roads.

Alex Mooney, a congressman running against Justice in the primary, has called Justice a “RINO” at every opportunity. Justice, a former billionaire businessman with a folksy personality that has won him a devoted following, was initially elected as a Democrat in 2017 before becoming a Republican at a Trump rally early in his term. Mooney voted against the infrastructure bill.

Mooney has said he recognizes Biden as president but feels the 2020 election was not a fair one. He voted not to certify Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania.

Justice, asked during a news briefing this past week whether he thinks Biden won legitimately, took a defiant tone even as he hedged: “What does it matter? I mean, what in the world does it matter?”

The governor then spun a story he has told often about something his father told him when he was competing in golf tournaments as a young man.

“Dad would tell me, ‘Son, the only shot that matters in golf is the next shot. If you made a hole in one as your last shot, well, so what?”

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