Ex-con coal baron roils US Senate race, alarming Republicans

Don Blankenship, whose US Senate bid in West Virginia is alarming fellow Republicans, is a former coal baron who spent a year in prison after a deadly explosion at his company's mine
AFP

Washington (AFP) – West Virginians came embarrassingly close to picking a prison inmate over president Barack Obama in the 2012 Democratic primary. Six years on, will the state’s Republican voters make an ex-con Trumpist their party’s US Senate nominee?

The provocative dark horse in next week’s Republican primary in West Virginia — the heart of Donald Trump country — is a coal baron who spent a year in prison after an explosion at his company’s mine killed 29 people. 

Don Blankenship’s surprisingly strong traction has establishment Republicans terrified that a tarnished conservative could trigger another political debacle as they struggle to maintain control of Congress.

With November’s mid-term elections now six months away, and President Trump’s poor approval ratings an anchor around the necks of many Republican lawmakers, party grandees are closely watching what transpires in West Virginia.

The impoverished Appalachian state has veered Republican over the last decade.

But having an ex-con on probation as the party’s nominee could make it harder to oust incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin, and paint the party as unable to control its rebellious wing at a time when political discipline is crucial.

And yet there Blankenship was Tuesday night, one week before the primary, on stage debating two other main candidates: state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, deemed by some as a carpetbagger from New Jersey; and US congressman Evan Jenkins, a onetime Democrat who, along with much of West Virginia, turned Republican.

“I’m up here with two guys that’s never created a job,” Blankenship, 68, told the audience in his soft drawl, as he promoted his former role as chief executive of Massey Energy.

He also dismissed charges he was responsible for the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010, instead accusing the federal government of taking action that led to the explosion and then creating a “fake prosecution” that convicted him of skirting safety standards.

“They sent me to prison for a misdemeanor,” he said.

Blankenship has expressed admiration for Trump’s ability to confound expectations and win the White House. 

The latest GOP underdog and political rebel made clear he will take no orders from political heavyweights in Washington.

“I’m not going to DC to get along,” he said. “You can’t drain the swamp being like the swamp.”

– ‘Cocaine Mitch’ –

Republicans have been here before. 

Senate candidate Roy Moore lost to a Democrat in last December’s special election in conservative Alabama amid accusations by women that Moore assaulted, molested or pursued them when they were teenagers.

And Republicans missed two pick-up opportunities in 2012 and 2010 when tarnished Senate candidates deeply embarrassed the party.

Stung by such failures, a political group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pumped at least $1.3 million into anti-Blankenship ads, including branding the fellow Republican a “convicted criminal” whose company was “contaminating water supplies.”

Blankenship countered, using his personal fortune to launch ads blasting his Republican rivals as insufficiently conservative, and brazenly attacking the party’s leaders.

“One of my goals as US senator will be to ditch ‘Cocaine Mitch,’” Blankenship said in an ad on Facebook, explaining later that he was referring to McConnell’s father-in-law’s Chinese company, whose ship was allegedly used to smuggle $7 million of drugs from Colombia to Europe.

McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is US Secretary of Transportation.

A recent poll shows Blankenship, who backs Trump’s positions on illegal immigration, trailing the other two top candidates, but a quarter of respondents remained undecided.

“The concern of the Republican National Committee about a Blankenship nomination appears real,” Robert Rupp, political science professor of West Virginia Wesleyan College, told AFP, noting that party intervention may solidify Blankenship’s claim as the outsider taking on Washington.

Given that ultimate outsider Keith Judd got 41 percent of the vote against Obama in West Virginia’s 2012 Democratic primary despite sitting in prison, “no possibility is beyond expectation,” Rupp said.

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