Republican relief as W. Virginia coal baron loses US Senate bid

Don Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Energy, has admitted defeat in the Republican US Senate primary race in West Virginia

Washington (AFP) – Republicans avoided a devastating political embarrassment Tuesday with a West Virginia former coal baron who recently served prison time over a deadly mine disaster losing his controversial bid for the US Senate.

Former Massey Energy chief executive and controversial political outsider Don Blankenship conceded after coming up well short in a race watched closely by Republicans who have grown increasingly alarmed over whether the party can keep its majority in Congress this year.

Voters in four states that President Donald Trump won in 2016 headed to the polls for highly consequential party primary races for Senate and House seats. 

West Virginia is crucial for Republicans’ efforts in November’s mid-term elections, as they see the economically depressed Appalachian state as a prime target to flip a Senate seat held by Democrat incumbent Joe Manchin.

But the Republican primary there turned into a toxic battle between Blankenship, a wealthy coal boss who proclaimed himself “Trumpier than Trump,” and rivals backed by the party’s Washington establishment who feared Blankenship would be too damaged a candidate to oust Manchin.

The nightmare scenario that Republicans feared did not materialize, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the target of much of Blankenship’s anti-establishment venom, offered an ice-cold reaction to his defeat.

– ‘Thanks for playing’ –

“Thanks for playing, @DonBlankenship,” McConnell’s Senate campaign said in a tweet.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who touted himself as a true conservative in the race, was the winner with 36 percent of the vote, ahead of congressman Evan Jenkins, with 27 percent. 

Blankenship stood at 19 percent.

The president can take some credit for the result. On Monday, Trump urged West Virginia — which backed him by a remarkable 42-point margin in 2016 — not to support Blankenship because there was “no way” he could win against incumbent Manchin in November.

In his concession speech to supporters, Blankenship said “it was probably President Trump’s lack of endorsement” that did him in, The Hill newspaper reported.

There was a broader all-out campaign by Republican leaders including McConnell to stop Blankenship, who at 68 has never run for public office and led a highly controversial campaign. 

He brazenly accused the government of action that caused the explosion at his mine that killed 29 workers, and used racially charged rhetoric against McConnell and his “China family,” a reference to relatives of the Republican leader’s wife, Taiwan-born Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Trump’s party has intensified its efforts to hold its congressional majority ahead of the mid-terms, but Democrats are organized, energized and well-funded.

– Anti-establishment fervor –

Blankenship, whose support surged shortly before primary day, had spooked Republicans already bracing for losses this year in a deeply partisan landscape.

For many including Trump, the tarnished Blankenship reminded them of a recent Republican election fiasco. 

December’s Senate election in conservative Alabama proved disastrous when Roy Moore, who was endorsed by Trump despite accusations of sexual misconduct including molesting a teenage girl, lost to a Democrat.

Moore was among a handful of extreme candidates in recent years who have won a Republican nomination only to eventually lose their Senate elections.

But the anti-establishment fervor unleashed by Trump’s spectacular 2016 election win has proven hard to control.

Republicans were worried that a primary win by Blankenship would sink the party’s chances of ousting Manchin and make it harder to hold its narrow 51-49 Senate majority.

Senate and House primaries were held across four states Tuesday. 

Ohio congressman Jim Renacci, who was backed by Trump, won his bid to challenge the state’s Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown in November.

In Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence’s older brother, Greg Pence, easily won his Republican primary in a conservative congressional district, meaning he will likely be sworn in as a member of the House of Representatives early next year.