GOP more confident about W. Va. Senate as Blankenship fades

GOP more confident about W. Va. Senate as Blankenship fades
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National Republicans are feeling increasingly optimistic about their chances of avoiding an intraparty bloodbath in the West Virginia Senate primary.

A spate of recent polling shows ex-coal CEO Don Blankenship fading into third place in the primary race, after an outside group with ties to the national GOP spent heavily to sink his candidacy.

That’s a U-turn from last month, when Blankenship was locked in a heated three-way race with state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsWest Virginia New Members 2019 Republican Carol Miller holds off Democrat in West Virginia House race Trump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report MORE and within striking distance of the Republican nomination to take on Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinCain says he withdrew from Fed consideration because of 'pay cut' On The Money: Cain 'very committed' to Fed bid despite opposition | Pelosi warns no US-UK trade deal if Brexit harms Irish peace | Ivanka Trump says she turned down World Bank job Cain says he won't back down, wants to be nominated to Fed MORE (D-W.Va.).

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GOP leaders fretted that Blankenship, who spent a year in prison for violating mining safety rules after a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners, could jeopardize their chances of toppling Manchin. The Democratic senator is a top target after President TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE won West Virginia by more than 40 points in 2016.

With Blankenship fading, GOP strategists say they are seeing positive signs that they’ll be able to avoid a repeat of last year’s Alabama special election — where controversial Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreGOP Senate campaign arm hits battleground-state Dems over 'Medicare for All,' Green New Deal The Hill's Morning Report — Category 5 Mueller storm to hit today GOP leaders dead set against Roy Moore in Alabama MORE won the nomination but lost the general election — as the May 8 primary fight enters its final days.

"It looks like it’s dropped off into a pretty competitive two-way race [between Jenkins and Morrisey]," said a national GOP strategist watching the race.

The strategist added that the two candidates differ from Blankenship in an important way: "Neither of them have been to jail for mine safety violations."

But some are cautioning that the GOP isn’t out of the woods yet, pointing to primaries from past cycles when candidates viewed as unelectable advanced to the general election — and later went on to lose critical races.

“There are positive signs, but you can’t assume that’s a done deal yet,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye. “Given that traditionally what we’ve seen over the past few years, arguments of electability haven’t exactly worked.”

Republicans hope the race is once again a face-off between Jenkins and Morrisey. Since 2017, the two have furiously scrambled to stake out the position as the race’s most pro-Trump conservative.

Recent polling shows them neck and neck.

A Fox News poll showed Blankenship with the backing of 16 percent of Republican voters, behind Morrisey and Jenkins — who were at 21 and 25 percent, respectively. A survey of GOP voters commissioned by GOPAC Election Fund had Blankenship in third place with 12 percent, Jenkins in second with 20 percent and Morrisey in first place with 24 percent.

Asked about the polling, Greg Thomas, a Blankenship spokesman, said their own numbers have the three candidates “a little more bunched up" and that the race is “very fluid.”

Blankenship’s flagging numbers haven’t kept him from grabbing headlines. He’s in the news again after pushing a long-simmering feud with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellThe Hill's Morning Report - Dem candidates sell policy as smart politics Overnight Defense: Trump ends sanctions waivers for buying Iranian oil | At least four Americans killed in Sri Lanka attacks | Sanders pushes for Yemen veto override vote McConnell: 'Time to move on' from Trump impeachment talk MORE (R-Ky.) and McConnell’s allies out into the public.

Blankenship turned up the rhetorical dial, suggesting McConnell has a conflict of interest because his father-in-law is a “wealthy Chinaperson."

Blankenship went a step further on Friday, saying the GOP leader “may also be assisting the swamp in the cover-up of the government’s killing of twenty-nine coal miners” — a reference to Blankenship’s claim that the government, not his company, was to blame for the fatal mine explosion.

“My run for the U.S. Senate offers voters an opportunity to begin draining the Swamp — this is why McConnell and the establishment are spending millions to defeat me,” Blankenship said in a statement.

National Republicans believe Blankenship would be a weaker candidate against Manchin, but they’ve been reluctant to attack him directly. In the Alabama Senate race, Republicans went all-in on fighting conservative firebrand Roy Moore in the primary, only for the strategy to backfire by turning Moore into the pick for Republicans who are critical of their party establishment.

“I don’t know that the party can play a significant role in determining who wins the nomination. ... I think it’s very difficult for a Republican Party or the NRSC or an organization to convince voters [who to nominate],” said Sen. Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranLive coverage: Barr faces Senate panel as he prepares release of Mueller report Hillicon Valley — Presented by CTIA and America's wireless industry — House panel approves bill restoring net neutrality | FTC asks for more help to police tech | Senate panel advances bill targeting illegal robocalls Senate panel advances bill penalizing illegal robocalls MORE (R-Kan.), a former chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).

National Republicans are publicly sticking to a common refrain when asked about Blankenship, saying that they hope voters will pick someone who can win in November — a subtle indication that they believe the ex-coal CEO cannot.

Asked about Blankenship’s comment on his father-in-law, McConnell — who Blankenship has dubbed the “swamp captain” — told Fox News that he didn’t “have any comment about ridiculous observations” and said he hoped West Virginia voters pick "somebody who can actually win the general election.” 

An outside group with deep ties to the national party is spending heavily to try to sink Blankenship’s candidacy. The Mountain Families PAC, which is based out of Arlington, Va., is spending nearly $1.3 million, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records, on TV and online ads. The group is planning to run ads, according to FCC filings, up to the primary.

Thomas acknowledged the outside spending could impact the race and that opponents “beat the crap out of us” after Blankenship became a contender. But he dismissed talk from GOP strategists that Blankenship doesn’t stand a chance against Morrisey and Jenkins.

"I think that's the kind of thing that D.C. swamp operatives would say,” he said. "People here want to drain the swamp. ... Don Blankenship is the most anti-establishment candidate in the country."

Morrisey and Jenkins are training their fire on one another and Manchin. Both candidates pounced on their primary opponent’s vulnerabilities during last week’s primary debate on WSAZ, a local TV station.

Jenkins sought to frame Morrisey as a West Virginia outsider who doesn’t understand the coal industry. He repeatedly brought up Morrisey’s roots in the tri-state area and criticized him for working as a Washington lobbyist with ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

Jenkins also touted his work with Trump on the GOP tax plan and role in overturning a regulation related to coal companies.

For his part, Morrisey ripped Jenkins as a newcomer to the Republican Party, calling him a “lifelong career Democrat for 20 years” who “just found religion in respect to conservative values.” 

Morrisey argued he’s been the only one combating the opioid epidemic that’s crippling the state and country. He also highlighted his efforts as state attorney general to fight Obama administration initiatives.

Democratic outside groups have also signaled that they don’t see Blankenship as much of a threat to Manchin.

Duty and Country PAC, a Washington-based Democratic super PAC, has spent the bulk of its money attacking Jenkins. The group has poured in north of $1 million in an attempt to cut down the GOP congressman, and spent about $47,000 opposing Morrisey.

"I'm a great believer in data and our data indicates that one or the other ... will be the nominee,” said Mike Plante, a Democratic strategist and spokesman for the group. "Don Blankenship's candidacy is fading."

Ben Kamisar contributed.

--Updated at 8:35 a.m. Monday