By Brad McElhinny, West Virginia MetroNews
Each of the top candidates in West Virginia’s high-profile race for U.S. Senate has a loss in the past.
Incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin, who has seemed unbeatable in state politics for almost two decades, lost the 1996 primary for governor.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who has won two statewide elections in West Virginia, came in last in a New Jersey congressional race in 2000.
Congressman Evan Jenkins lost a bid for state Supreme Court in 2000.
And although ex-coal executive Don Blankenship hasn’t personally run for office until now, his effort to fund a Republican revolution in the state Legislature in 2006 wound up instead with lost seats.
For each of the candidates, the losses in their political past were also learning experiences – how to run a better campaign, how to better connect to voters.
Losses may be learning experiences. And losses may be illuminating. But losses don’t usually lead to a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Here are the stories of their setbacks.
1996, Joe Manchin, governor
Manchin had spent a decade in the state Senate when he decided it was time to run for governor.
The Democrat entered a field of 11 candidates for governor that also included Charlotte Pritt.
“I think he took it seriously, and I think he felt like it was his time. Politicians aren’t alone in that. Charlotte certainly thought it was her time,” said Mike Plante, a political consultant who ran Pritt’s campaign.
Pritt, a progressive, had spent four years in the Senate before making a surprisingly competitive upstart bid for governor in 1992 against incumbent Gov. Gaston Caperton.
She had solid support from labor and the environmental movement. Manchin had support from business.
“I had the support of environmentalists, workers, small business. It was a classic Bernie Sanders,” Pritt said this past week. “I was for medical marijuana in 1992, for goodness sake. They were trying to use that as a smear campaign.”
Manchin, who was running for statewide office for the first time, had his daughter Heather as his campaign manager.
On primary Election Day, Pritt got 39.5 percent of the vote to Manchin’s 32.6.
“I won in 1996 because Joe and I had a very clear voting record. I went out and I just said ‘This is my voting record,’” Pritt recalled. “I’m still the only person who’s ever beaten Joe Manchin.”
Plante saw it all unfold from the perspective of Pritt’s campaign. In the decades since then, Plante has been aligned with Manchin’s campaigns.
“That was a tough loss for him to absorb because I think he had focused and planned on that for some time,” Plante said.
By the next election, Manchin's successful run for Secretary of State, he partnered with Larry Puccio, his aide for many years, and refined his style.
“In losing, I think he learned a lot of valuable lessons. One of those was about discipline," Plante said. "Larry Puccio helped him a great deal in being disciplined and harnessing the energy and talent he has as someone who is very good at retail politics.”
Manchin’s politics also changed a bit. Over the years, he gained the backing of the union groups that had backed Pritt. For his Senate run this year, Manchin proudly touted the backing of the United Mine Workers.
Reflecting on the early gubernatorial loss in a 2012 story in Beckley’s Register-Herald, Manchin said the experience helped him refine his message.
“What you learn from any loss is that it’s no one’s fault but your own,” Manchin said. “No one else’s name was on that ballot but mine. If you can’t accept that, you shouldn’t be in the process.”
2000, Patrick Morrisey, Congress
In 2000, New Jersey Congressman Bob Franks announced he would give up the seat to run for U.S. Senate.
Four candidates lined up to challenge for the open 7th Congressional District seat. And one was Morrisey, who graduated from Rutgers and then went to Washington, D.C., to work as a lobbyist and then as a Capitol Hill staffer.
“He was a Jersey guy who had been in Washington and came back and didn’t know anybody, didn’t really know New Jersey people,” said David Wildstein, who covered the race that year for his own political website, politicsNJ.com.
(Wildstein, contacted by telephone, noted that he went on to have his own infamous brush with New Jersey political history.)
“It wasn’t unusual that cycle to have people who weren’t living in the area immediately preceding that election.”
For example, the eventual winner, Mike Ferguson, had run in a district about 50 miles away the prior election cycle.
Morrisey’s Washington, D.C., experience contributed to his campaign. One of his news releases touted, “Morrisey picks up endorsements from 13 members of Congress!”
“It was obvious to Republican leaders in New Jersey that this guy was well-respected on the Hill,” Wildstein said. “He had a tremendous number of congressmen in his corner.”
On Election Day, Morrisey came in fourth of the four candidates, pulling in 9.1 percent of the vote. Ferguson got 42.5 percent of the vote and went on to serve in Congress for the rest of the decade.
“When I think about our campaign, I remember Pat as being tenacious and principled and fair as an opponent, and in politics those are some of the best compliments you can give anybody,” Ferguson, now working at a law firm’s federal policy team, said in a telephone interview. Ferguson is also a current Morrisey donor.
“Losing an election is never any fun, but if you approach it the right way you can learn a lot and become a better candidate through the experience. It can also help make you a better public servant. Pat has certainly shown he has done that.”
Morrisey’s career and family led him to move to West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle. He ran a successful campaign for West Virginia Attorney General in 2012, knocking off longtime Democratic political figure Darrell McGraw.
That’s not the road political observers in New Jersey had foreseen.
“People thought he had a political career in New Jersey,” Wildstein said. “He was viewed as a guy who, based on that race, was going to come back to New Jersey and do some more stuff.”
Morrisey’s New Jersey background has been brought up over and over in West Virginia politics, including in the current Senate race.
“I feel very fortunate that I’m one of the folks who moved to this state by choice,” he said when the topic resurfaced during a Fox News debate last week. “I love West Virginia with every fiber of my being.”
2000, Evan Jenkins, state Supreme Court
In 2014, when Jenkins was first elected to Congress, his smiling face was at the center of a nice photo with a blunt Roll Call headline: “Freshman class filled with losers.”
It was a listing of the 27 new members of Congress with losses on their political records.
For Jenkins, the loss was his bid for state Supreme Court in 2000.
He was a Democrat then and had served six years in the state House of Delegates. Jenkins was running among four candidates for two seats. Joe Albright and Robin Davis were the two candidates who elected. Davis still serves on the court.
Jenkins and West Virginia University law professor Bob Bastress were the two who wound up out of the running.
“There’s a certain degree of charm to him, and he’s a nice guy,” Bastress said of Jenkins. “He comes across as a good family man. I think he kind of relied on personal charm and ability to interact with people.
“His juristic thinking isn’t particularly deep, but you don’t necessarily need to project that in a campaign. You have to be able to talk to people. I think he was reasonably effective at that.”
In the Senate race, Morrisey has attempted to use Jenkins’ former Democratic Party registration to paint him as a liberal.
Bastress doesn’t buy the label.
“Somebody accused him of running six times as a liberal Democrat,” Bastress said. “That would not be a fair description by any stretch of the imagination. Evan and I get along very well, but we do not share politics. I don’t concede it would be an accurate description.”
On the election trail this month, Jenkins said his goal during the Supreme Court run was to rein in monetary judgments. He was shaped by his background as executive director of the West Virginia Medical Association.
“I stood up for what I believed,” he said. “We had – and still do have to a certain extent – a lawsuit lottery environment. We had ranked nationally being a tort hell. So I stood up to bring sanity to our court system.
“We had an aggressive campaign for justice of the Supreme Court, came up short, but stood up for what I believed in, which I’ve always done.”
2006, Don Blankenship, state Legislature
Blankenship’s long history as a heavy financial backer of conservative politics in West Virginia has led to headlines like “As Blankenship faces trial, his politics is dominant in WV.”
But the day after the general election in 2006, the headline struck a different tone: “Blankenship fails to sway legislative races.”
This year’s U.S. Senate race is the first political run for Blankenship, the former coal executive who spent a year in jail after being convicted of conspiracy to violate mine safety regulations following the deadly explosion of the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010.
But before this, Blankenship had a decade of political donations and activism.
In 2006, he aimed to flip the state Legislature, which had been solidly Democratic for decades. “Wealthy coal executive hopes to turn Democratic West Virginia Republican,” wrote the New York Times.
Blankenship spent more than $5 million on the effort that year.
“It was definitely a learning experience, not only for us as campaigners but to see what a Republican could do,” Blankenship said this month.
“We knew when we put a Republican on every House of Delegate race where for years there hadn’t even been a Republican in the race that it was an uphill battle.”
Republicans on ballots across the country faced political headwinds that year, said Gary Abernathy, a longtime Republican strategist in West Virginia.
“You were just fighting a tide that year that wasn’t favorable to Republicans in West Virginia or anywhere else," Abernathy said.
The statewide Blankenship effort wasn’t ideal, but it was a start, Abernathy said in a telephone interview.
“They kind of did a cookie cutter campaign where they ran the same kind of campaign for every candidate instead of localizing the races.”
On Election Day, Republicans ended up losing four seats in the House and two seats in the Senate. “Don Blankenship spent a lot of money to do nothing,” state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey said at the time.
Asked this month what happened in 2006, Blankenship said, “I was a little surprised we didn’t win more of them, but at the same token some were a lot closer than anybody ever imagined and it set the stage for the next five races.
“The biggest thing it did was it just showed that people could be put on the ballot. We were rushed to put people on and didn’t have the best candidates. But it demonstrated that it could be done.”
During Senate debates in the past month, Blankenship has taken credit for making conservatives competitive in West Virginia – and also has apologized for creating the circumstances that allowed his competitors, Morrisey and Jenkins, to be in the political spotlight.
Abernathy, too, gave Blankenship credit but said the changing political landscape has been a result of many factors.
“Success has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan,” said Abernathy, who is now a newspaper editor in Ohio. “There’s a lot of people responsible for West Virginia becoming a Republican state.”
The prior Blankenship efforts – including the 2006 setback – are learning experiences that likely help Blankenship now, he said.
“I think Don Blankenship is a very intelligent person. So whatever mistakes he did make, I’m sure he will learn from them. He’s a guy with a pretty long history. I think he knows West Virginia well," Abernathy said.
“I think he was involved with politics and saw what works and didn’t work. One of the most important things any of us can do in politics and life is to learn from our mistakes and correct them going forward.”