Cameron Joseph is Talking Points Memo's senior political correspondent based in Washington, D.C. He covers Capitol Hill, the White House and the permanent campaign. Previous publications include the New York Daily News, Mashable, The Hill and National Journal. He grew up near Chicago and is an irrationally passionate Cubs fan.
National Democrats have been not-so-quietly hoping that controversial ex-con and coal baron Don Blankenship wins the West Virginia GOP Senate primary in a few weeks, seeing him as by far the easiest opponent for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
Now, they’re stepping up to try to make that happen.
A new Democratic super-PAC, Duty and Country, has launched a nearly half-a-million-dollar ad campaign blasting away at Blankenship’s two main primary opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. The group has no spots up attacking Blankenship, who’s fresh off a year in prison for his role in failing to prevent an explosion at one of his mines that killed 29 workers.
The attacks are reminiscent of a 2012 move by allies of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) who intentionally helped Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO) win the GOP primary by viciously attacking his two primary opponents. Akin, always McCaskill’s preferred opponent, returned the favor with his “legitimate rape” comment, handing her the race.
The ads claim Jenkins sold out voters in the state when, as the head of the West Virginia State Medical Association, he made money by encouraging doctors to use an insurance company that overcharged patients. They describe Morrisey as a carpet-bagging “millionaire New Yorker and former lobbyist.”
The ads have close to $500,000 behind them, serious money in the inexpensive state, and the ad buy may grow between now and election day. Early Federal Election Commission reports indicate that much of the group’s spending is focused on Jenkins, the candidate Democrats have privately told TPM they’d least like to face. So far only the ad attacking Jenkins is running on TV, according to Republicans tracking the state’s ad buys.
The group has longtime West Virginia Democratic strategist (and former Manchin consultant) Mike Plante involved. But its mailing address is at the same Washington, D.C. building where the Senate Majority PAC and other top DC Democratic groups are based.
Plante argued the group was focusing on the pair because his numbers showed they were the most likely to win, though he didn’t deny that having Blankenship as the nominee would be beneficial.
“In our data it seems clear that Evan Jenkins or Patrick Morrisey is likely to be the Republican nominee. Obviously Don Blankenship is attracting a lot of attention and spending more money but there seems to be a ceiling on him in the Republican primary,” he said.
Jenkins’ and Morrisey’s campaigns fired back.
“Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are so scared of Evan Jenkins they’re launching false attacks in order to distract from Evan’s unwavering support of President Trump and his agenda,” said Jenkins spokesman Andy Sere. “West Virginians will see through the Pelosi/Schumer scheme to deceive them.”
“Patrick Morrisey has been elected statewide as attorney general of West Virginia twice, because voters recognize his conservative record of expanding gun rights, protecting the unborn, defeating Obama’s war on coal, and tackling the opioid crisis. The Democrats are merely going after him because they know Patrick will defeat Joe Manchin in the general election,” said Morrisey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik.
The super-PAC isn’t the only national group meddling in the race: A GOP group with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is up with ads attacking Blankenship.
Democrats think they’re likely to fall short in their uphill battle to capture a ruby-red congressional district in suburban Phoenix on Tuesday. And they’re just fine with that.
Hiral Tipirneni (D), a doctor, is giving former state Sen. Debbie Lesko (R) a real fight in the battle to replace Trent Franks, the disgraced former Arizona Republican congressman. While early voting numbers show Lesko should prevail, national GOP groups have had to spend roughly $1 million to make sure another race that shouldn’t be competitive at all stays in their column.
Most strategists in both parties think Lesko is likely to win by a high single-digit margin. If that holds up, it’ll be the latest sign of fierce headwinds for Republicans in the state and nationally as they buckle down for a brutal 2018 election.
“If this gets inside of a 10-point margin, that’s huge… I don’t think anyone expects it to be a full-on victory, but stranger things have happened,” Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley (D), who’s running for governor, told TPM. “If we’re talking about 10-point swings [in the district], everything swings in Arizona. That’s why I’m very optimistic of winning the governor’s race this November.”
Moral victories don’t get Democrats any closer to seizing back House control. But the mere fact that any real money or attention is being spent on this race is a bad sign for Republicans as they aim to hold onto an open Senate seat in the state, an open House seat, and the governorship.
“It’s a reflection of the cycle and the climate,” one top Arizona Republican told TPM, warning that the GOP was in for a tough year in a state where rapid Hispanic growth has turned the Republican bastion into swing territory.
To call the west suburban and exurban Phoenix district challenging terrain for Democrats is an understatement. President Trump carried it by a 21-point margin. Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) easily won in the district that year as well, even as he was losing his reelection bid by a 13-point margin. Mitt Romney carried it by 25 points in 2012. Franks’ closest win in the past decade was with 63 percent of the vote. Unlike Pennsylvania’s 18th district, where Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off a huge upset last month, the district’s heavily senior citizen population has no history of voting for local Democrats. And while the state is just 56 percent non-Hispanic white, 70 percent of the district is.
All those advantages weren’t enough to quell Republicans’ nerves about the race, however. The National Republican Congressional Committee and the Congressional Leadership Fund, the top GOP House super-PAC, have both spent hundreds of thousands to shore up Lesko’s standing with advertising. The groups added even more money for ads down the homestretch to salt the race away and avoid a repeat of the Lamb fiasco. Trump recorded a robocall for her as well.
“We’re trying to make sure we don’t take any chances,” NRCC Chairman Rep. Steve Stivers (R-OH) told TPM before predicting a victory margin of six to 10 points. “We feel pretty confident, but we decided to just finish the job and that’s why we’re running this hybrid [ad] at the end.”
Stivers downplayed the importance of special elections in forecasting this fall’s contests, but warned that it was the latest sign the other side was pumped to vote.
“There is a message: The Democrats are excited, they’re turning out,” he said.
A pair of recent polls, one from Tipirneni’s campaign and another from Emerson College, show a tied race, and some Democrats haven’t given up hope that she could pull off a miracle.
“West Valley voters see in Debbie Lesko everything they hate about politics: the special favors, the cozy relationships with corrupt figures, and the willingness to sell out ordinary families to big corporate interests,” argued Tipirneni spokesman Jason Kimbrough. “That’s why all of the recent polling shows an unusually large number of Republicans who have returned their early ballots are voting for Hiral Tipirneni.”
But few strategists think those poll results are anywhere near accurate. Republicans have cast fully 49 percent of the ballots in early voting returns to just 28 percent for Democrats, and almost two thirds of the number of votes expected for the race have already been cast. Tipirneni is banking on big support from independents and some Republicans, but even with strong crossover votes that margin is almost definitely too much to overcome. National Democrats seem to agree: They haven’t spent much to help their candidate in the race, though her own fundraising has been pretty strong.
“This race is pretty close to over, the cake is just about baked,” said Lesko adviser Barrett Marson. “There’s a lot of people who are looking for a close campaign. I just don’t know that it’s going to be that close.”
Strategists predicted anywhere from a four-point win to one in the low double digits. Even a 10-point loss would still be a double-digit shift towards Democrats, however. If their candidates can replicate that across the state this fall, Democrats would finally turn their long-time dream of proving Arizona’s really a swing state into a reality.
There are signs that’s already happening. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) leads all of her potential GOP opponents in a new poll of the race to replace retiring Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Sinema has a six-point advantage over Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), the front-runner in the primary and establishment favorite, and double-digit leads over the pair of hardline Republicans McSally is looking to defeat en route to a tough general election.
Republicans privately admit they have an uphill fight to retain the Democratic-leaning Tucson seat McSally is vacating or to beat freshman Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) in a district Trump narrowly carried last fall.
Even Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who once appeared a shoe-in for reelection, is looking like he’ll have a tough race this fall. And Republicans are praying that ailing Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) sticks around the Senate through the end of May, to avoid having to defend a second seat in the state this fall.
With all that in mind, Democrats are excited that Tipirneni is even in the race.
“This is legitimately competitive,” said Andy Barr, a Democratic strategist with deep Arizona ties. “Whether she wins or comes close, that should scare the shit out of them.”
Former FBI Director James Comey’s bombshell memos on his private conversations with President Trump and top White House staff are public for the first time. While most of what they contain closely matches what Comey has already shared publicly, there are some rather interesting nuggets of exactly what Trump allegedly said at the time — and some news about how his then-underlings acted.
Here’s what stood out:
Reince Priebus Asked About Whether There Was A Flynn FISA Warrant
Then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, after asking Comey if they were having a “private conversation” in a one-on-one meeting on February 8th, asked if there was a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant on Flynn. Before the question, he told Comey to let him know if that was an inappropriate question.
Comey, after a pause, answered (what he said was redacted from the release), then told Priebus to go through official channels in the future for questions like that.
The timing of that conversation is as notable as the question itself. It came five days before Flynn was fired from his post as National Security Advisor, but a full 13 days after then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had warned the White House that Flynn had lied about the contents of his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
A full week after that (and two days after Flynn resigned), Priebus reportedly requested that Comey and other senior FBI officials go public to dismiss media reports about possible contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian leaders during the 2016 campaign.
“The Golden Showers Thing”
Trump directly denied “the golden showers thing,” according to Comey in exactly those words, in a late January meeting with Comey where he demanded loyalty from the then-FBI director. Trump called it “fake news” and said it bothered him that there was even a 1 percent chance his wife, first lady Melania Trump, believed the accusations, asking Comey to investigate it to help him prove the claims wrong.
He brought up the same phrase in a February meeting.
Trump: Michael Flynn “Has Serious Judgment Issues”
Comey said in the same meeting that Trump told him that he had serious reservations about then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s judgment. To illustrate that, Trump told a story about Flynn interrupting him when he was saying British Prime Minister Theresa May had called him first to congratulate him on the election to say another world leader had called first, and that he’d called back six days later. Trump berated him for not responding to the call faster. He concluded by saying, according to Comey, that Flynn “has serious judgment issues.”
“The Hookers Thing”
During a February meeting, Trump said “the hookers thing” claim from the Steele dossier about his his visit to Russia wasn’t true — but said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had told him in an earlier conversation that “we have some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.” That’s notable given Trump’s previous denials that he’d talked to Putin during the campaign, though it’s unclear when exactly this comment was supposed to have been made.
Former FBI Director James Comey took assiduous, contemporaneous notes during his private meetings with President Trump and close associates, documenting the details of what was allegedly said almost immediately after they occurred. Talking Points Memo has obtained a copy of the notes themselves.
The memos, which the Justice Department gave to various Capitol Hill committees Thursday evening after House Republicans have threatened to subpoena them, closely match Comey’s public testimony on the topics in Congress and in recent interviews: That Trump demanded his loyalty, wanted to protect then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn from investigation, and that he wanted to end the Russia investigation.
TPM independently obtained the full memos and published them shortly after the Associated Press uploaded them.
Arizona Republicans appeared to back off their efforts Wednesday to rig the rules to keep Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) seat in their column, pulling from the state Senate floor a proposed change in state law that would have guaranteed a lengthy appointment from the GOP governor should the ailing senator leave office in the coming weeks.
Statehouse Republicans seemingly tried to pull a fast one on their Democratic counterparts, quietly adding an emergency clause to a bipartisan bill to clean up special election laws in the state that would have handed Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) assurance that he’d get to appoint a replacement for McCain through 2020.
There’s a bit of disagreement between experts on current state law. There’s general consensus that if McCain’s seat comes open before June 1, a special election will be held to fill his seat this fall — greatly improving Democrats’ chances of winning at least one Senate seat and cracking the door for them to win both. If McCain’s seat doesn’t come open until after June 1, most (but not all) experts think that means Ducey would get to appoint a replacement for more than two years.
McCain is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, and underwent surgery for a digestive issue in recent days.
The move suggests Republicans are nervous he might not be able to run out the clock and guarantee their party a longer appointment to the seat. That could be disastrous: Not only would it open up another Senate seat in a year that’s shaping up to be a terrible one for their party, but it could hurt their chances in both races depending on what candidate jumps into each contest.
Republicans say either former state Sen. Kelli Ward (R) or former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio (R) would likely move over to the other race, and nominating either would be devastating to their chances at holding that seat. Right now the two are splitting the hardline conservative vote and giving Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), the establishment favorite, the edge in their three-way primary for retiring Sen. Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) seat. If one moved overMcSally could be in real trouble, and both hardliners could be the favorite for the nomination. If McSally survives her primary she’s in for a tough race against Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).
There’s bipartisan agreement that state laws on open seats need to be clarified, after a chaotic process to fill the seat of disgraced former Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ). But Republicans quietly added an emergency clause to a bill on Tuesday that would change future election rules to make it immediately applicable.
If it had passed, the bill would have given Ducey the power to appoint a McCain replacement through 2020 whether he leaves before or after the end of May.
But Democrats caught the change and raised the alarm, all but killing the effort since emergency clauses need two-thirds support and the party has 13 of the state senate’s 30 seats. Republicans responded by canceling plans to put the bill on the state Senate floor on Wednesday, delaying then canceling a vote.
“It’s fairly clear the emergency clause is done. … The crisis is probably over,” Arizona state Sen. Steve Farley (D) told TPM. “I’m not sure they thought this through terribly well.”
A spokeswoman for Arizona state Sen. Sonny Borelli (R), who was involved with the effort, claimed the bill had been pulled to make room for school safety and budget meetings that needed to take place.
Farley said he wasn’t sure who was behind the efforts, but speculated Ducey’s office may have had a hand.
Ducey adviser Daniel Scarpinato denied that charge.
“We haven’t really been involved with this,” he said.
Farley said the GOP could try to resurrect the efforts at the end of the term a month from now, but it wouldn’t have any more chance of success. It also would be a curious move since at that point they wouldn’t need to wait long for the issue to be moot.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is clinging to a narrow lead in his race for reelection, according to a new poll.
Cruz leads Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) by just 47 percent to 44 percent, according to the survey from the well-respected pollsters at Quinnipiac University.
His narrow lead, within the poll’s margin of error, is the latest sign that Cruz is in for a tough fight for reelection in the GOP-leaning state.
Texas has been heavily Republican for two decades, Trump carried it by nine points in 2016, and any Democrat running statewide faces a steep uphill battle. On top of that, in the state’s March primary Cruz won double the number of votes O’Rourke did, a sign that the congressman still has a long way to come in getting his name out around the state.
But O’Rourke has been posting huge fundraising numbers — including a stupendous $6.7 million haul in the most recent quarter — and stands poised to be the first well-funded Democrat to run for the Senate since Texas’ changing demographics opened the door a crack to making the state competitive in recent years.
The poll also showed that President Trump is no help to his former primary rival.
Just 43 percent of Texans approve of the job Trump is doing to 52 percent who disapprove, according to the poll — weak numbers that are actually slightly better than some other pollsters have found for the president in the red but blue-trending state.
O’Rourke remains the clear underdog in this fight, but it appears he has a real shot. And if he can pull off a shock victory, he would give Democrats a real boost in their uphill fight to retake the Senate.
Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) seems to have gone too far in his attempts to embrace President Trump in Rokita’s GOP primary.
Trump’s campaign has demanded that Rokita pull down lawn signs that arguably suggest that the president has endorsed him in the heated Indiana Senate primary, where fealty to Trump has become the common denominator between the three candidates.
The signs say Rokita is “Endorsed by: Trump/Pence.” In smaller letters on the next line, it makes clear who’s actually supporting him: “2016 team leaders.”
That refers to Rex Early and Tony Samuel, Trump’s 2016 state campaign chairman and vice-chairman. Both endorsed Rokita earlier this year in his race against Rep. Luke Messer (R-IN) and former state legislator Mike Braun.
Samuel told TPM he got a text message from a senior Trump campaign official (he declined to say who it was) complaining about the signs, and pointed them to the Rokita campaign to hash things out.
“This is the Messer campaign concerned with our endorsement and trying to push back and putting heat on this person from the campaign who felt the pressure to text,” Samuel said. “The wording on the yard sign is consistent with our endorsement, we have every right to make endorsements as the former state chairman and vice chairman of the 2016 campaign.”
Messer has a lot of overlapping supporters with Vice President Mike Pence, and Rokita’s team believes Messer’s campaign pressured Trump’s staff into the complaints.
Trump campaign chief operating officer Michael Glassner didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the signs, and the conversation.
The AP first reported the kerfuffle, and has a photo of the yard sign here.
Rokita’s team refused to say whether it will comply and pull down the signs, or discuss the contents of the call with Trump’s team, before taking a swipe at Messer.
“The record shows that Rex Early and Tony Samuel, the chairman and vice chairman of the 2016 Trump campaign in Indiana, have endorsed Todd Rokita because he stood with President Trump while Luke Messer sided with the Never Trumpers who disdain President Trump and gave aid and comfort to Hillary Clinton,” Rokita spokesman Nathan Brand said in a statement after declining to say whether the signs would come down.
Braun’s team was quick with a swipe of its own, labeling him “Todd the fraud” in a statement.
All three candidates have raced to embrace Trump in the primary, name-checking him in ads. But Rokita has gone the furthest, donning a “Make America Great Again” hat in one of his recent ads.
The primary is May 8, and strategists say all three have a real chance at winning the right to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) in one of the GOP’s best chances to pick up a Senate seat this cycle.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has hired a powerful firebrand conservative to be his new chief of staff, a sign he wants to renew his position on the right with an eye on his political future.
Rubio announced Tuesday afternoon that he was bringing on Michael Needham, until recently the head of the powerful Heritage Action for America, to run his Senate office.
That’s a somewhat surprising pairing, given Rubio’s establishment-leaning reputation. Needham has long been a thorn in the side of GOP leaders, cheerleading for the 2013 government shutdown and rabble-rousing against congressional Republicans from the right on a host of issues throughout his career.
The hiring signals that Rubio may be looking to reestablish his once-strong credentials with talk radio conservatives after losing those bona fides by backing bipartisan immigration reform efforts in recent years and emerging as an establishment favorite in the 2016 presidential election before stumbling out of the race.
“Mike brings a wealth of policy, political and management experience that will greatly complement our office’s mission of serving the people of Florida and leading the effort to modernize the conservative movement in the 21st century. Mike understands and shares these goals, and I look forward to his contributions,” Rubio said in a statement.
The two do have some overlapping history. Heritage was a major backer of Rubio back when he was a Tea Party darling in 2010 and forced then-GOP Gov. Charlie Crist from the party. So was then-Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC), who went on to head Heritage and work closely with Needham (sources differ on whether Needham supported DeMint’s ouster at the organization last year).
The super-PAC tasked with keeping the House in GOP hands is making a big bet on what the House map will look like this fall, plunking down $48 million in advertising reservations across 30 districts.
The Congressional Leadership Fund’s reservations include $38 million for TV ads in the 20 districts the group seemingly sees as the most likely to decide the House majority next fall, as well as an additional $10 million on digital ads spread across 30 districts.
The list mostly follows most prognosticators’ views of which districts are vulnerable, and groups can always change early reservations and add other targets. But the list is notable for who’s on there — as well as who was left out.
One name that’s glaringly missing from the robust list: Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), a very vulnerable member in a Democratic-trending Northern Virginia district. Reps. Rod Blum (R-IA) and Jason Lewis (R-MN), two other members in tough swing districts viewed as vulnerable by strategists in both parties, also didn’t make the cut. The group also didn’t commit any early resources to open seats vacated by retiring Reps. Darrel Issa (R-CA) and Ed Royce (D-CA) that Democrats have been bullish about picking up.
On the flip side, the group shows it’s legitimately concerned about holding a pair of Kansas House seats by reserving nearly $3 million to protect Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and a GOP-leaning open seat in the state, as well as protecting Reps. Andy Barr (R-KY) and Tom MacArthur (R-NJ).
The reservations come about a month after the House Majority PAC, the group’s Democratic counterpart, plunked down $43 million in its own early bets.
“CLF’s historic and aggressive fundraising pace has allowed us to place larger advertising buys earlier than ever,”CLF Executive Director Corry Bliss said in a statement. “Today’s announcement demonstrates CLF’s continued commitment to doing things differently. By reserving advertising early, investing unprecedented resources in digital, and running the country’s only House-focused national field program, CLF is prepared to lead the way in defending the House Republican majority.”
Here’s the full reservation list as provided by the group:
Television Reservations ($38 million in 20 districts)
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.
“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.”