GOP outsider tests Trump’s influence in WV Senate contest

Don Blankenship
The Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Republicans were deciding Tuesday between a brash GOP outsider who embraced Donald Trump’s political playbook — but was opposed by the president — and a more traditional party candidate to take on vulnerable Democrat Joe Manchin this fall in an election both parties view as key to Senate control.

Trump and his allies made their preference clear. And it wasn’t former coal executive Don Blankenship, who served a year in prison for his role in a deadly mine disaster and more recently attacked the Asian heritage of the top Senate Republican’s wife.

As Trump did unsuccessfully in a special Alabama Senate primary last year, the president warned on the eve of this primary election that Blankenship would destroy Republicans’ chance of winning this fall. Yet it’s unclear whether voters will heed that warning, even in the state where Trump claimed his largest margin of victory in 2016.

West Virginia voter Wayne Sturgeon, who voted Tuesday for Blankenship, said he’s a Trump supporter but was bothered by the White House intrusion.

“I think it should be left up to the people,” Sturgeon said.

Blankenship has embraced Trump’s tactics — casting himself as a victim of government persecution and seizing on xenophobia, if not racism — to stand out in a crowded Republican field that includes state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Republican Congressman Evan Jenkins.

The West Virginia Republican Senate contest headlined a slate of primary elections across four states on Tuesday that will help shape the political landscape in this fall’s midterm elections. Control of Congress is at stake in addition to state governments across the nation.

In most cases, the Republican candidates on the ballot Tuesday have competed to be seen as the most conservative, the most anti-Washington and the most loyal to the Republican president.

In Indiana, Republicans will pick from among three Senate candidates to take on another vulnerable Democrat, Joe Donnelly, this fall.

All three fought to paint themselves as being strong Trump supporters. Rep. Todd Rokita sometimes carried around a cardboard cutout photo of the president. Businessman Mike Braun also tied himself closely to Trump.

Indiana voter Chris Thurston said he chose Rep. Luke Messer in the contest because he wants someone who will be an independent thinker.

“Just because the president says to do something isn’t necessarily why it needs to be done,” Thurston said.

In Ohio, the governor’s race was the main attraction. Republicans were likely to nominate a far more conservative candidate than outgoing GOP Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 presidential candidate and frequent Trump critic. Even Kasich’s former running mate, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, has pledged to unwind some of Kasich’s centrist policies, including the expansion of the Medicaid government insurance program.

One Ohio voter, Jeffrey Whipple, of Toledo, supported Democratic candidate Richard Cordray in the Democrats’ primary because he liked his work as the consumer watchdog under President Barack Obama.

“Hopefully what Trump’s done can be undone,” Whipple said.

Ohio also featured primary elections in both parties to decide the candidates for an August special election to replace GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi, who resigned earlier in the year.

North Carolina Republicans weighed in on Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, who faced a primary challenger who almost upset him two years ago. Pittenger featured Trump prominently in his campaign, while challenger Mark Harris, a prominent Charlotte pastor, called Pittenger a creature of Washington who refuses to help Trump “drain that swamp.”

Yet none of Tuesday’s other contests was expected to have more impact on the midterm landscape than West Virginia.

The state’s Republican electorate is overwhelmingly white, working class and rural, in contrast to other states that feature more suburban voters. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton by 42 points here less than two years ago, but there are far more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote.

The stakes are high for a Republican Party bracing for major losses in this fall’s midterm elections. A victory on Tuesday for Blankenship could make it hard for Republicans to gain a Senate seat in this deep-red state in November. But the anti-establishment fervor unleashed by Trump’s 2016 campaign has proved difficult for GOP leaders to rein in.

West Virginia Republican Chairwoman Melody Potter downplayed concerns about Blankenship, pointing to another Republican outsider who ultimately proved the establishment wrong.

“You know, when Trump was running, some of those same people said that, too,” Potter said.

No matter Tuesday’s winner, Trump’s team was keeping pressure on Manchin. A pro-Trump political action committee America First was airing ads promoting Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee to be CIA director, and urging residents to call Manchin to support her confirmation.

Trump and his allies had invested significant resources in an effort to influence another high-profile Senate race recently as well.

Last year, Trump endorsed Republican Sen. Luther Strange for the Alabama seat vacated by Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions. Former state Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore won the GOP runoff and was defeated by Democrat Doug Jones after Moore was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls decades earlier.

In that race, Trump ultimately endorsed Moore.

Trump and his party leaders have been more united against Blankenship in recent weeks. The head of the Senate Republican campaign arm has highlighted Blankenship’s criminal history. And a group allied with the national GOP, known as Mountain Families PAC, has spent more than $1.2 million in attack ads against Blankenship.

The retired businessman was released less than a year ago from a prison term for a 2010 mine explosion that left 29 men dead. Blankenship led the company that owned the mine and was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to break safety laws, a misdemeanor.

He has repeatedly blamed government regulators for the disaster, casting himself as the victim of an overzealous Obama-era Justice Department — an argument Trump regularly uses to dismiss federal agents investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia.

The Senate candidate took aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in an ad claiming that McConnell has created jobs for “China people” and that his “China family” has given him millions of dollars. McConnell’s wife is U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, born in Taiwan.

Even as Blankenship rebuffed Trump’s criticism this week, he described himself as “Trumpier than Trump” and played up his outsider credentials.

“West Virginia will send the swamp a message: No one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote,” Blankenship declared.

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Peoples reported from New York. Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Charleston, West Virginia, and John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio contributed to this report.

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