Coal baron Don Blankenship is surging in West Virginia’s GOP senatorial primary on the eve of the May 8 election, with an anti-Mitch McConnell message that’s resonating with voters.
However, that message is also terrifying Republicans nationally in what may become a repeat of the disaster in Alabama in last year’s special Senate election.
Blankenship, flush with cash despite being fresh off a prison sentence he served after being convicted of violating mine safety standards, leading to the deaths of several miners, is blanketing West Virginia airwaves with attacks on McConnell and his wife Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
Blankenship says in the non-traditional television ad:
Swamp Captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people. While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars. Mitch’s swamp people are now running false negative ads against me. They are also childishly calling me ‘despicable’ and ‘mentally ill.’ The war to drain the swamp and create jobs for West Virginia people has begun. I will beat Joe Manchin and ditch ‘Cocaine Mitch’ for the sake of the kids.
After Blankenship was panned for the ad by basically everyone in the media and Republican politics, he released a new radio ad that doubles down on it and goes even further in some cases. Blankenship says in the new ad:
The establishment politicians are getting desperate and more hostile. They are calling me a ‘bigot,’ a ‘moron,’ a ‘despicable character,’ and ‘mentally ill.’ But even if all of this is true, I will do a better job than they have done. They have resorted to this childish name-calling because they don’t want us to focus on the issues. The issues are that we need more West Virginia jobs. We need to end the drug crisis. And we need an honest government. We do not need more childish behavior like you may have witnessed at the Fox debate. The fake news is also pretending to be offended by my use of the words ‘China people.’ They seem not to realize that China is a country not a race. The establishment has given millions of our jobs to China people and left many West Virginia people to fend for themselves. Send me to the Senate and I will represent West Virginia people not China people. I am an America person and I will put America first.
Blankenship is the former CEO of Massey Energy. He was indicted on Nov. 14, 2014, and convicted on Dec. 3, 2015, of—according to the Associated Press—a “misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch.” The mine blast that led to Blankenship’s conviction killed 29 miners, and was, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in 40 years.”
During the legal process leading up to his trial, according to the West Virginia newspaper the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Blankenship and his attorneys declared his official residence as being in Las Vegas, Nevada—not West Virginia.
Ken Ward, Jr., wrote in a Dec. 2, 2017, exposé for the newspaper on the man who would eventually launch a U.S. Senate campaign in West Virginia:
Since his indictment Nov. 14, 2014, Blankenship and his criminal defense lawyers repeatedly said he had moved to Las Vegas from his native Mingo County, and that the Nevada city was his home. Early in the criminal case that led to his mine safety conspiracy conviction, Blankenship and his lawyers made those statements to get court approval for him to travel to Vegas while he was free on bond pending his trial. More recently, Blankenship sought and received court approval to have his supervised release transferred to federal officials in Las Vegas because that is where he lives.
Though, for reasons that are somewhat unclear, despite all of this, Blankenship has many GOP insiders stunned ahead of Tuesday’s primary in West Virginia. Republicans consider the West Virginia race an easy win in November against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)—a red state Democrat of a bygone era in the heart of the now deep-red Rust Belt of America—but if Blankenship is his general election opponent, that calculation goes out the window. Lots of Republicans consider this race lost—much like Alabama was when Judge Roy Moore won the nomination for U.S. Senate in the 2017 special election there, clearing the way for Democrat Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) to beat him in the general election—should Blankenship become the nominee.
The similarities between the West Virginia and Alabama primaries could not be clearer—and not just in that there is a bomb-throwing highly controversial outsider cruising to the front of the pack despite the best efforts of everyone in the GOP at a national level and in the state. There are also in West Virginia, like there was in Alabama, two other candidates with very different stories.
In Alabama, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell personally intervened in the primary to boost former, governor-appointed Sen. Luther Strange in every respect he possibly could. McConnell told the disgraced former Gov. Robert Bentley—who resigned amid his own scandals—that he wanted him to pick Strange to be nominated for the seat. Then, McConnell—through a variety of allies including the soon-to-be-former Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and others—pushed President Donald Trump to endorse Strange and eventually campaign for him. Tweets Trump sent out backing Strange before the first round of voting helped push Strange over the top into the final round with Moore—where Moore smoked him, as many conservatives had warned would happen.
However, there was also another candidate in Alabama, someone who had the backing of most national conservatives and would have easily defeated Jones in the general election—and would likely have easily beaten Strange or Moore in a head-to-head match-up. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), that third candidate, was crushed by anti-Brooks ads run by McConnell-aligned organizations like the Senate Leadership Fund. In fact, most conservatives who ended up eventually backing Moore–including former Breitbart News executive chairman and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Fox News’s Sean Hannity, and many others, were first behind Brooks in the primary.
However, thanks to McConnell’s relentless assault on Brooks with demonstrably false attack ads and McConnell’s efforts through Corker to convince Trump to back Strange in the first round of voting, Brooks was defeated before he had a shot at the runoff.
A similar dynamic has emerged in West Virginia. McConnell and his allies are pushing extraordinarily hard for Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV), a former Democrat who backed Hillary Rodham Clinton for president in 2008. Jenkins actually remained a member of the Democratic Party for the entirety of Barack Obama’s first term in office, not switching to the Republican Party until 2013. Jenkins’ closeness with lobbyists, and other behaviors during his time in the House of Representatives, has irked Trump supporters and conservatives who are already weary of anything McConnell tries to do inside the party.
Like Alabama, there is in West Virginia another viable candidate beyond the bombastic bomb-throwers like Moore and Blankenship and the McConnell candidates Strange and Jenkins – a true conservative and actual supporter of President Trump and his agenda. West Virginia’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is also running for the nomination, and in most public polling is viewed as the front-runner—though reportedly some private polling has Blankenship with an edge now, something reflected by Morrisey’s recent turn in the last 24 hours, during which he has unloaded on the convicted ex-energy company CEO. Morrisey, like Brooks in Alabama, would have no problem beating a Democrat in November, and would be an actual supporter of the president and his agenda.
There are a couple differences between how the Alabama race and the West Virginia race have played out, however. In Alabama, Trump backed Strange at the urging of McConnell and those doing McConnell’s bidding, like Corker. In West Virginia, Trump is simply urging voters to not support Blankenship—and to vote for either Morrisey or Jenkins.
In this case, too, since there is no runoff and all three candidates go head-to-head-to-head on May 8, most Trump-aligned conservatives are behind Morrisey. Morrisey, for instance, has done a number of interviews on Breitbart News radio on SiriusXM Patriot Channel 125, and has the backing of many of Trump’s core supporters.
The whole mess in both states could have been avoided, however, had McConnell not intervened as heavily behind establishment candidates in either primary and process, and had Trump stood up to McConnell and crushed the Senate Majority Leader’s efforts to undermine the president’s supporters in these campaigns.
It is a much deeper problem for the party, and for McConnell personally in particular, on a national level.
“Several Republicans involved in the race told me primary candidates can usually boost their popularity by sparring with McConnell, given how much the party’s base loathes Washington leadership,” Axios’s Jonathan Swan wrote in a Sunday evening report on the race.
That’s a huge problem for McConnell going forward, and one that he and his team surely need to address. Sure, there will be a few Moore-like candidates who fizzle out along their way to Washington and lose in grand fashion, but eventually somebody will figure out how to start winning anti-McConnell campaigns in the primaries and general elections. Others in Senate GOP leadership may want to—to avoid a highly divided conference in the eventual post-McConnell era like what has happened in the House in the post-Speaker John Boehner era—speed up McConnell’s eventual return home to Kentucky.
That’s not to mention the fact that it’s a mainstream position among House Republicans–Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, potentially the next Speaker of the House backs this as do many, many others–for McConnell to lift the filibuster rule that requires 60 votes for major pieces of legislation to pass the Senate and drop it back down to 51 votes, a simple majority. As the party moves more and more against McConnell on this front, it’s going to be tougher for him to govern from a position of strength.