National Republicans are quietly making a major push to block controversial coal baron and ex-con Don Blankenship from becoming their party’s nominee in the West Virginia Senate race, amidst growing fears that he could cost them a shot at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
A newly minted super-PAC with national GOP ties, Mountain Families, has unleashed a TV campaign attacking Blankenship for poisoning local drinking water with “toxic coal slurry” even as he built a separate water system for his own mansion, the opening salvo in what will likely be a furious effort to keep him from winning the GOP nomination May 8.
The attacks come amidst building GOP panic that the self-funding Blankenship will spend his way to the nomination in spite of his massive political baggage, as his two main opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), haven’t laid a finger on him with just weeks to go until the election.
Blankenship would be a nightmare of a nominee for the GOP. He’s been out of prison for less than a year after serving a sentence for willfully violating safety regulations at his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine, leading to an explosion that killed 29 employees — the worst mining accident in the U.S. in four decades. The incident was the latest in a string of Massey safety violations, leading Rolling Stone to dub him “the dark lord of coal country” in a 2010 story.
His shocking rise has Republicans in West Virginia and D.C. worrying he could triumph next month and cost them another winnable race in the fall while embarrassing the state.
“If the election was held today, Don would win,” one plugged-in West Virginia Republican told TPM late last week. “Alabama gave us Roy Moore. Now West Virginia’s saying ‘hold my beer.'”
Blankenship has sought to turn his conviction into a positive in the race, painting himself as a political prisoner and arguing that the conviction was a set-up by the Obama Justice Department, Hillary Clinton and Manchin, who was governor at the time of the 2010 accident and said Blankenship had “blood on his hands.” In Blankenship’s version of the story, the Mine Safety and Health Administration forced his company, Massey Energy, to use a defective ventilation system, then turned him into a convenient political scapegoat after the disaster.
There’s scant evidence that’s true. A jury trial found Blankenship and Massey systematically refused to follow safety regulations at the mine, leading to a buildup of methane gas and coal dust that caused the deadly explosion, and multiple independent investigations have found no evidence of Blankenship’s claims.
But Blankenship has pushed hard on that tale with $2 million in TV ad spending, a 67-page manifesto and regular speeches across the state in his affectless drawl. And he’s got a seasoned campaign staff around him — many of the same people who helped him flip the state from blue to red in the last 15 years as the state’s largest GOP donor, and essentially buy a state Supreme Court seat a decade ago.
His anti-Obama conspiracy theory plays well in a state where the former president is so hated that a convicted felon nearly beat him in the Democratic primary in 2012. And it’s compelling even to some who back his opponents.
“There’s a feeling among some in the state that he got a raw deal in being sent to jail, that the government was involved rather than Massey Energy,” former West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney told TPM.
McKinney, who backs Jenkins, nonetheless said he believed Blankenship.
“Don has stated unequivocally that they made them change the airflow in that mine and that’s what led to that tragedy. I’m not a coal miner, I’m a urologist, but he makes a very convincing argument about it,” he said.
Views like McKinney’s help explain how Blankenship has shocked local and national observers with a solid showing in the few public polls of the race.
In internal surveys Jenkins and Morrisey released more than a month ago, Blankenship was within striking distance of first place (though each candidate’s poll had him in the lead). No numbers have been released since, and most West Virginia Republicans believe he has the lead right now after vastly outspending his two opponents on the airwaves.
National Republicans have signaled they won’t lift a finger to help Blankenship if he wins, while imploring voters not to pick him.
“I’m not sure if he can even vote. Do they let ankle bracelets get out of the house?” quipped National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) when TPM asked about Blankenship’s chances. “West Virginia will do the right thing and send someone who can actually win.”
The White House has sent similar signals as to its preferences — President Trump recently had both Morissey and Jenkins sitting nearby at a recent official trip to the state, while Blankenship’s invitation was lost in the mail.
But Gardner told TPM that the NRSC wouldn’t get directly involved, conserving its own limited resources and looking to avoid another anti-establishment backlash like the one that helped Moore clinch the nomination in Alabama last fall.
“The last thing West Virginians want is the senatorial committee telling them what they should want,” he said.
In spite of Blankenship’s rise, neither of his opponents have leveled any real attacks against him, focusing instead on using their much more limited resources to tout their own credentials and tear each other down. That puzzling pattern comes in spite of his own ads attacking Jenkins for his Democratic past and Morrisey for being a carpetbagger with a D.C. lobbyist wife.
The pair seemed caught off-guard by Blankenship’s rise, but in recent weeks it’s been unclear why they were still holding their fire — whether they were worried that a shot at the deep-pocketed and ruthless Blankenship would trigger a heavy barrage of attacks in response, or whether they were simply waiting for outside help.
That cavalry has finally arrived, though it’s unclear if it’ll be enough. Mountain Families, a shadowy group run by former RNC senior staffer Ben Ottenhoff, who last fall worked with a super-PAC associated with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to try to stop Moore, has dropped $650,000 in the initial ad buy, a heavy rotation for the next week-plus in the inexpensive state. Ottenhoff didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Blankenship moved to turn those attacks to his advantage.
“The Republican Party swampers in Washington have come to the surface to oppose my candidacy for the U.S. Senate. They are swamp creatures who pretend to be conservatives but are instead liberal big spenders. We welcome the fact that they are showing themselves to be what they truly are,” he said in a Monday statement.
Trump won the state by a whopping 42-point margin in 2016, his second-largest advantage of any state in the country. And while Manchin’s strong personal brand and the promise of a good year for Democrats make him a tough out, recent polls suggest he’s slipped some at home and could be vulnerable in a race against Jenkins or Morrisey.
Manchin refused to say who he’d prefer to face in the fall — “Whoever the Republicans put up is who we’re going to run against, I’m not getting involved in their primary at all,” he told TPM — but Democrats and Republicans agree that Blankenship and his baggage would obviously give Manchin a huge boost in what would otherwise be a tough race.
“It should be the easier race for Joe” if Blankenship emerges, former Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) told TPM. “We’re talking about people’s lives here in Blankenship’s case, people’s lives that were lost, for which he was convicted of being the guilty party.”
Morrisey has looked to position himself as the right-wing outsider in the campaign — his latest ad features a literal West Virginia mountain dropping on the U.S. capitol.
I’m running for U.S. Senate not to just change Washington, but to blow it up and reinvent it.
Washington is fundamentally broken. We can fix that with a West Virginia conservative fighter! #wvsen pic.twitter.com/hogbOoYnms
— AG Patrick Morrisey (@MorriseyWV) April 5, 2018
“When you look at Don Blankenship’s record there’s the obvious prison record. When you look at Evan Jenkins you can see his years as a Democrat,” said Morrisey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. “And when you look at Patrick Morrisey you can look at his six years as attorney general. … He’s really been there on the front lines of every major conservative battle.”
Jenkins has also on bear-hugged Trump, while touting his social conservatism and blasting Morrisey as a carpet-bagger.
Jenkins spokesman Andy Sere said his boss still leads, arguing he’s “the only person in this race who has supported President Trump since day one, and is actually working with the President to drain the swamp and protect our West Virginia values.”
He’s expected to do particularly well in his congressional district in the southern part of the state, the heart of coal country — and the site of the UBB accident. Observers say that that Morrisey and Blankenship share an anti-establishment base, and if one drops the other will benefit, and could win. If they stay roughly equal, Jenkins could pull off a victory with more moderate votes.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) told TPM it was a “very competitive race” that any of the candidates could win.
And that could lead to disaster for the GOP.
Former Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie (R), a Jenkins supporter, told TPM he’d gladly vote for Morrisey if he prevails — but would vote for Manchin if Blankenship is the nominee. And he thinks many others would follow suit.
“He has a checkered past, at best,” he said. “The race is over if he wins the primary. The Republicans can basically concede to the Democrats.”