Washington (AFP) – US Republican leaders cast a concerned eye toward West Virginia on Tuesday to see whether an ex-con coal baron wins the Senate primary, a move that could trigger panic in a party fretting over keeping its majority in Congress.
West Virginia — bedrock Trump country — is one of three US states where voters are choosing Republicans to take on endangered Democratic Senate incumbents, as President Donald Trump’s party intensifies its efforts ahead of November’s mid-term elections.
North Carolina is also holding primaries for a set of crucial House races. The contests in all four states will help frame this year’s battle for Congress.
But all eyes in political America are on economically struggling West Virginia to see whether divisive candidate Don Blankenship will win the nomination despite an all-out campaign by Republican leaders to stop him, fearing he is too radical to prevail later this year.
Trump has already come out against Blankenship, tweeting on Monday that there is “no way” the candidate — who spent a year in prison over safety violations after an explosion at his company’s mine killed 29 workers — can win in November.
Trump urged voters to pick one of the race’s other leading Republicans — Congressman Evan Jenkins or state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, both of whom have expressed fawning support for the president.
But Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Energy, has swatted away the concerns, even proclaiming himself “Trumpier than Trump” as he employed an anti-establishment style.
“Today is the day we tell (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell and the DC swamp that it’s time for a real conservative in Washington,” Blankenship tweeted Tuesday as he urged West Virginians to head to the polls.
Blankenship, who at 68 has never run for public office, has led a highly controversial campaign.
He has brazenly accused the government of action that caused the deadly accident at his mine, 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.
– A party on edge –
Blankenship’s strong performance has spooked Republicans already bracing for losses this year in a deeply partisan landscape.
For many in the party, the Blankenship race is reminiscent 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 he once molested underage girls, 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.
– ‘Problematic’ –
Republicans now appear alarmed that a primary win by Blankenship would sink the party’s chances of ousting Democratic incumbent Senator Joe Manchin — even in a state Trump won by 42 points in 2016 — and make it harder to hold its narrow 51-49 Senate majority.
Blankenship’s rivals ignored him earlier in the race, but with internal polling showing he is surging, they went into attack mode.
“Say no to the convicted criminal and unify behind the only person who can beat him,” Morrisey tweeted.
Establishment Republicans in Washington were vexed, with number two Senate Republican John Cornyn acknowledging that a Blankenship nomination would be “problematic” for the party.
A group linked to McConnell has poured money into the race, releasing ads calling Blankenship a “convicted criminal.”
Blankenship, meanwhile, has grown increasingly defiant, using his fortune to blanket the state with ads attacking McConnell, whom he has branded “Cocaine Mitch” — in reference to drugs reportedly found aboard a cargo ship owned by his wife’s family.
McConnell dodged questions about how his party might treat Blankenship if he claims the nomination.
“We’ll wait and see who wins,” the Republican leader said.
Republican Senate and House primaries are also being held in Ohio and Indiana, where one of the congressional candidates is Greg Pence, Vice President Mike Pence’s older brother.