GOP takes gloves off against Blankenship in West Virginia 

GOP takes gloves off against Blankenship in West Virginia 
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National Republicans are making a hard turn against ex-coal CEO Don Blankenship in the final days before the West Virginia GOP primary.

After staying largely on the sidelines of the race, they're unleashing a rhetorical firestorm against the anti-establishment candidate.

Republicans have been wary of directly attacking Blankenship despite concerns that he would have little chance of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump takes heat for remarks on help from foreign governments The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by MAPRx — Trump takes heat for remarks on help from foreign governments The Hill's Morning Report - Trump and House Democrats resume battle MORE (W.Va.) in the general election. The GOP wants a strong candidate, viewing Manchin as vulnerable after President TrumpDonald John TrumpDC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' DC board rejects Trump Hotel effort to dismiss complaint seeking removal of liquor license on basis of Trump's 'character' Mexico's immigration chief resigns amid US pressure over migrants MORE carried West Virginia by more than 40 percentage points in the 2016 election. 

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But the hands-off approach has changed in the home stretch of the heated primary. Republicans are signaling alarm that Blankenship could mount an eleventh-hour comeback despite polling from last month that showed him behind 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 (R-W.Va.) and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Trump hasn’t backed a favorite in the primary, but Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpLieu trolls Trump with 'warning' to foreign powers on office door Lieu trolls Trump with 'warning' to foreign powers on office door Amash responds to Trump Jr. primary threat with Russia joke MORE weighed in, urging West Virginia voters to “make a wise decision and reject Blankenship!”

“I know the first thing Manchin will do is run ads featuring the families of those 29 miners killed due to actions that sent you to prison. Can’t win the general... you should know that & if others in the GOP won’t say it, I will,” Trump Jr. added after Blankenship released a statement knocking the “establishment." 

Trump Jr.’s comments warning against “more fumbles like Alabama” underscores the depth of concern Republicans have about Blankenship, who spent a year in prison after being convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety rules when 29 miners were killed during the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion.

They worry that a Blankenship victory on Tuesday would set the party up for a repeat of last year’s Alabama special election, where conservative firebrand Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreLawyer for Roy Moore arrested on drug charges Lawyer for Roy Moore arrested on drug charges Doug Jones mocks Moore over reaction to potential Senate bid: 'They're just not that into you' MORE won the primary only to lose to now-Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), squandering a seat.

Morrisey is scrambling with a last-minute defense against Blankenship after spending most the primary trying to ignore his presence in the race. He signaled on Saturday that he believes the ex-coal baron is now his main competition, saying the election is "now between a conservative fighter and a convicted criminal."

He's also holding a press conference on Sunday to discuss Blankenship's legal issues and has launched a robocall warning that the ex-coal CEO would get "crushed in November."

"His deep legal problems and criminal conviction show he believes he is above the law," the robocall adds. "A vote for Blankenship is a vote to advance liberal positions, higher taxes and abortion on demand."

Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser and former Hill staffer for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale Overnight Defense: Trump doubles down on claim Iran attacked tankers | Iran calls accusations 'alarming' | Top nuke official quietly left Pentagon | Pelosi vows Congress will block Saudi arms sale McConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' MORE (R-Ky.), has dubbed Blankenship the “West Virginia Roy Moore.” Meanwhile, Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulOvernight Defense: Pompeo blames Iran for oil tanker attacks | House panel approves 3B defense bill | Trump shares designs for red, white and blue Air Force One Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales Senate rejects effort to block Trump's Qatar, Bahrain arms sales MORE (R-Ky.), who backs Morrisey, said during a campaign stop in West Virginia that Blankenship is an “outlier” and “not on the [Republican] spectrum.”

Mountain Families PAC, an Arlington, Va.-based super PAC with deep ties to the national party, seized on Trump Jr.’s tweet, releasing a video on Friday that included a screenshot of the comment and warned voters: "Don’t be fooled."

“Evan Jenkins and Patrick Morrisey are the true conservatives. Don’t vote Don Blankenship,” the video adds.

No GOP outside group has officially aligned themselves with the PAC, which won’t have to disclose its donors until a filing deadline after the primary. But Mountain Families PAC has spent more than $1.3 million running web and TV ads against Blankenship. 

Despite the snub from the Trump family, Blankenship isn’t going quietly. 

He said Friday that Trump Jr. has been misinformed and is “a victim of fake news.”

“The Trump family will be with me in November, there’s no questions about that. They’re just feeling the pressure, you know, that’s coming from McConnell and others,” he told WV MetroNews’s “Talkline.” 

Blankenship has placed McConnell in the center of the primary fight, pledging that if he wins he’ll help “ditch Mitch.”

Morrisey and Jenkins have hedged when pressed if they will support McConnell, who has been plagued by low approval ratings despite his firm grip on the GOP leader spot. 

“Look, we would not have Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court today but for Mitch McConnell,” Jenkins said Friday. “So I am not so quick to throw him under the bus.”

Blankenship has had no such qualms.

He’s released a slate of ads that drew heavy criticism for targeting McConnell’s family and offering the Kentucky senator multiple Trump-like nicknames, including “cocaine Mitch” and “swamp captain.” 

Most controversially, Blankenship released a TV ad in which he criticized McConnell’s “China family.”

"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," Blankenship says about McConnell in his latest ad. 

The family of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoTransportation Secretary Chao sells stock in Vulcan after pledge to divest by 2018 Transportation Secretary Chao sells stock in Vulcan after pledge to divest by 2018 McConnell brushes off question about special treatment from Chao MORE, emigrated from China and founded an international shipping company.

“This clown is a walking, talking case study for the limitation of a prison’s ability to rehabilitate,” Holmes fired back in response to Blankenship’s comments.

The attacks were enough to drag the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned group, into the race. They criticized Blankenship over his “latest round of racist comments.”

The comments mark the first time the group has publicly gone after Blankenship.

“There is only one candidate in this race — maybe in the history of candidates running for U.S. Senate — who has ever entertained the idea of becoming Chinese. His name is ex-convict Don Blankenship,” said Chris Pack, a Senate Leadership Fund spokesman. 

The New York Times reported late last month that in a telephone conversation recorded in 2009 Blankenship expressed an interest in moving to China if he could get citizenship. The Times also noted that Blankenship’s fiancée is from China. 

Blankenship fired back that the newspaper was “fake news” and “communist propaganda,” but his comments have been enough to win McConnell even the rare support of Democrats.

Rep. Judy ChuJudy May ChuOvernight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — Senators unveil sweeping bipartisan health care package | House lawmakers float Medicare pricing reforms | Dems offer bill to guarantee abortion access The Go-Go's rock the stage at annual 'We Write the Songs' DC concert Pelosi faces tipping point on Trump impeachment MORE (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the GOP Senate candidate is using “racially insensitive rhetoric” and taking “cheap shots” at McConnell. 

One group that hasn’t weighed in on Blankenship’s rhetoric: The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which hasn’t officially picked a side in the primary. 

Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerMcConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' McConnell defends Trump amid backlash: 'He gets picked at every day' The Hill's Morning Report — Uproar after Trump's defense of foreign dirt on candidates MORE (R-Colo.) — who has publicly made jokes about Blankenship’s prison stint — warned that trying to influence the outcome of the GOP primary could ultimately backfire.

“What we’ve seen is that the people of West Virginia, the people of Indiana, the people of Missouri could care less who the senatorial committee is supportive of,” he told the Washington Examiner editorial board. “In fact, [it] may have the opposite effect.”

But that’s done little to stop the weeks of rhetorical volleys between GOP leadership and Blankenship’s campaign.

McConnell dismissed Blankenship’s suggestion that he had conflicts of interest because his father-in-law is a “china person” as “ridiculous.”

McConnell added he hoped West Virginia voters would pick “somebody who can actually win the general election" — a not-so-subtle indication that he believes Blankenship cannot.

Gardner, asked recently about Blankenship’s impact in the race, offered a similar response, saying, “in terms of West Virginia, I’m confident we’ll have a Republican nominee who can win in November.”

Greg Thomas, a spokesman for Blankenship, told The Hill in an interview late last week that he had not spoken to the NRSC in weeks but suggested better communication could have helped “assuage” the concerns of national Republicans. 

"Cory Gardner should have called Don Blankenship,” he said at the time. “We think a lot of this stuff could have been defused."