When sitting members of Congress face primary rivals, the challenger is almost always someone who’s dissatisfied with the incumbent for one reason or another. But on rare occasions, U.S. House members end up running against one of their own colleagues.
After the once-per-decade redistricting process, lines are sometimes redrawn in such a way that two sitting lawmakers find themselves competing in the same district. It’s a bit like a game of musical chairs, with two members of Congress from the same party having to scramble for one available seat.
Rep. Alex Mooney defeated Rep. David McKinley in the GOP primary for West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District on Tuesday, a victory for former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Mooney. In a rare matchup of incumbents, McKinley and Mooney faced off after the state lost one of its congressional seats amid declining population and their districts were combined.
The former president may not have had much success in Nebraska’s contests yesterday, but Trump certainly got the result he wanted in West Virginia: He enthusiastically touted Mooney over McKinley, and with just about all of the votes counted, it appears that Mooney won by nearly 20 points.
When the two GOP congressmen were first paired against one another, this wasn’t necessarily the most likely outcome. McKinley not only enjoyed a geographic advantage — he’d represented more of the new district for a longer period of time — he was also well positioned to chair a key subcommittee next year.
What’s more, it’s not as if McKinley were some kind of moderate in an increasingly far-right political party. Based on FiveThirtyEight tallies, McKinley voted with the Trump White House more often than Mooney over the course of the former president’s tenure.
So why did he lose in a landslide? And why did Trump repeatedly insist that McKinley is a “RINO” (“Republican In Name Only”)?
The main point of contention between the two conservative West Virginians was a single legislative vote last year: McKinley supported the bipartisan infrastructure package, while Mooney voted against it. The Washington Post’s James Hohmann noted in his latest column:
Defending his support for the bill, McKinley cited the calls he received from mayors and county commissioners who were desperate for the federal help. As a professional engineer, he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail that he was tired of the “D” and “F” ratings the state’s infrastructure has regularly received from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
In other words, McKinley supported a popular infrastructure bill — which was going to pass whether he voted for it or not — because it was likely to deliver positive results for his constituents and his state.
Trump found this outrageous. On the heels of the House vote on the infrastructure proposal, the former president backed Mooney. Voters agreed. McKinley did the responsible thing, and as his landslide defeat showed, he’s now paying the price.
Greg Sargent added yesterday that there is a degree of irony to the circumstances: Trump repeatedly vowed to deliver an infrastructure package. We now know, of course, that this never happened, but when McKinley helped follow through on one of the former president’s stated priorities, Trump treated it like a betrayal.
As Greg put in a piece that was published before last night’s results were available, “This contest serves as more than a test of Trump’s influence over GOP voters. It will also show how hollowed out Trumpism as an ideology has truly become. Infrastructure spending was once central to distinguishing Trumpist pro-worker economics from standard GOP plutocracy. Yet here it’s been reduced to something akin to a signifier of whether you are for or against Trump.”
With this in mind, the lopsided results were more than just a defeat for a Republican incumbent; they were also a setback for those hoping to see the GOP inch away from its earned status as a post-policy party.