Ex-Con Blankenship Still In The Hunt As Brutal WV GOP Primary Barrels To Finish Line

TPM Illustration. Photos by Getty Images/ Bill Clark/ Tom Williams.
May 7, 2018 6:00 a.m.

The nastiest Senate primary in the country rumbles to its madcap conclusion on Tuesday – and may yield a GOP nominee so deeply flawed he could make Roy Moore look good by comparison.

Coal baron Don Blankenship, who’s fresh off a one-year prison sentence for his role in failing to prevent a mine explosion that killed 29 workers, has spent the closing weeks of the West Virginia Senate primary flaying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) as “Cocaine Mitch” and attacking his “China people” family.

Blankenship’s high-profile war with national GOP leaders has eclipsed a sharp-elbowed fight between Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) that has left both with scars. Not to be left out, allies of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) have aired nearly $2 million in ads attacking Jenkins, the candidate they least want to face.

For Democrats, West Virginia’s primary has lived up to the state’s motto: Wild and wonderful. And it’s left GOP strategists hoping to defeat Manchin cringing and unsure who their nominee will be.

We’re all ready for this just to be over,” one top West Virginia Republican who’s unaligned in the primary told TPM. “It’s become really bitter.”

That alarm has risen to the top of the GOP, with President Trump himself urging West Virginians not to give Blankenship the nomination in a Monday morning tweet that compared him to Moore:

The race’s nasty tenor hasn’t helped Republicans as they hope to defeat Manchin in a state Trump won by a 41-point margin in 2016 and is a key battle in the war for the Senate.

The consensus in West Virginia is that Morrisey may be the slight favorite to be the nominee. He’s the only one who hasn’t faced a barrage of outside spending in the race, he doesn’t have Blankenship’s oversized baggage, and late endorsements from Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) have helped him with some in the GOP base.

But a number of Republicans worry Blankenship has some late momentum. They think all three candidates could win — two sources said they’d seen separate polls showing all three in the lead in the last week — and argue that a Blankenship nomination would be a disaster.

It’d be like watching a dumpster fire in Morgantown roll down the hill,” one unaligned West Virginia operative told TPM. “It’d be an absolute shitstorm. McConnell and he don’t like each other, and Manchin and he really don’t like each other.”

National Republicans publicly say they’d be fine with either Morrisey or Jenkins as nominee. But while some like his hard-charging style, many others privately many worry that Morrisey’s history as a former lobbyist who ran for Congress in his native New Jersey before moving to the state make him a less electable candidate than Jenkins.

Manchin’s allies clearly agree — which is why they’ve dumped a huge sum on Jenkins’ head in the closing weeks of the race.

Jenkins’ team argues he’s survived the attacks and will win on Tuesday.

“While Patrick Morrisey, Don Blankenship and the anti-Trump Schumer PAC have spent millions on false attacks against us, West Virginia voters aren’t buying it — because they saw for themselves this week that Evan Jenkins is the only candidate who truly represents West Virginia values and can beat Joe Manchin the fall,” said Jenkins adviser Andy Sere.

But Jenkins’ allies privately admit the combined assault against him has hurt the underfunded candidate.

Anytime you face an amount of money like this it’s tough to overcome,” one source close to Jenkins told TPM.

Ads by a McConnell-aligned super-PAC ripping Blankenship clearly had some impact. A trio of public polls of the primary found him sinking into the teens a few weeks ago, 10 points behind his two rivals. But those were conducted before his counter-punches against McConnell began landing in earnest, and before Democrats unleashed their attacks on Jenkins that knocked him down.

Blankenship also may be experiencing the rare post-debate bump for a non-presidential candidate. Even his detractors say he handled himself well onstage in a debate that aired nationally on Fox News last week.

Blankenship’s got momentum right now,” said former West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney, a Jenkins backer. “People were surprised at what a good showing Don made at the three-way debate last week … I would not be too surprised if any one of the three of them wins.”

Democrats agree, though most think that Morrisey or Jenkins is still more likely to emerge.

“The race has become a lot more fluid in the final days here. It’s tightened up amongst all three of them,” said Mike Plante, who’s working on the Manchin-aligned super-PAC that eviscerated Jenkins. “The more people have learned about these candidates, the less they’ve liked about them.”

Blankenship avoided the line of fire during the debate face-off as Jenkins and Morrisey tore into one another. That’s a dynamic that’s carried through the race as the two more establishment candidates have focused their attacks on one another and avoided poking the bear and risking vicious attacks from the self-funding candidate.

That dynamic has national Republicans alarmed — including the White House. President Trump pointedly had Jenkins and Morrisey by his side at an official event the last time he was in his state, with Blankenship left out in the cold. And on Thursday, after meeting with Republican National Committee officials, Donald Trump Jr. let out a tweetstorm calling for West Virginians not to nominate Blankenship while comparing him to Moore:

After mostly focusing his ire on Jenkins, Morrisey has suddenly pivoted into an attack on Blankenship in the race’s final days, with a robocall released over the weekend and a Sunday press conference aimed squarely at attacking his opponent’s criminal past.

“Don Blankenship’s disrespect for the law and the people of West Virginia threatens to block our ability to advance conservative policies and imperils Republican chances of defeating Sen. Joe Manchin in the fall,” Morrisey said in a statement blasted out by his team on Friday. “Don’s continued flouting of the law demonstrates that he has learned nothing from his past legal troubles and his time in prison.”

Blankenship’s team is supremely confident he’ll win on Tuesday — and roll their eyes at establishment Republicans’ view that he can’t beat Manchin in the fall.

“How many times do they need to go down the road of ‘this person’s unelectable’ before they realize voters just don’t give a shit?” Blankenship spokesman Greg Thomas told TPM. “They said the same thing about Donald Trump.”

That GOP infighting has Republicans worried the wounds of the primary will be difficult to heal.

And the primary remains anyone’s to win. Just ask the campaigns.

“I’d rather be us than Jenkins, I’d rather be us than Don,” said Morrisey adviser Nachama Soloveichik. “But this will be close.”

This story was updated a 8:20 a.m. to include President Trump’s tweet on the race.

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