GOP struggles with supporting Blankenship in West Virginia
Senate Republicans are grappling with what support, if any, they should give ex-coal CEO Don Blankenship if the controversial candidate wins Tuesday’s primary in West Virginia.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters this week that Republican leadership is actively discussing the “various scenarios” that could be sparked by a Blankenship victory on Tuesday night.
“Uh, don’t know. Let’s just hope and pray that that doesn’t happen,” the No. 3 GOP senator said after a closed-door leadership meeting. “It wouldn’t be good.”
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), the vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said there would be a “discussion” if Blankenship wins but that he will not support him.
“I’m sure that will be a discussion. I personally wouldn’t. You know I’m involved with the NRSC but I just don’t see a scenario where that’s a positive projection of the Republican brand,” he said, asked by The Hill about the NRSC’s thinking.
Blankenship, who was released from prison less than a year ago, has sparked panic among national Republicans who believe his victory will blow their chances of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.).
And the candidate appears to have momentum heading into Tuesday, with multiple internal polls showing him leading rivals state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.).
GOP leadership in Congress has publicly kept the race at arm’s length, worried that any attempts to influence who wins the Republican primary could backfire. But Blankenship, who is running as an anti-establishment candidate, has blasted GOP leadership in ads.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declined to say on Tuesday if Blankenship’s ads saying the GOP leader helped create jobs for “China people” and got money from his “China family” were racist.
“Well, we’re going to find out what happens in West Virginia tonight, and I may have more to say about that tomorrow,” McConnell told reporters when asked if Blankenship’s ads are “racist.”
McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan. Her family emigrated from China to the United States and founded an international shipping company.
Pressed on Tuesday on whether he and the NRSC would support Blankenship, McConnell similarly demurred, saying he would wait to see who won the GOP primary.
The NRSC didn’t take a side in the primary and hasn’t said what, if any, help it will offer Blankenship if he wins.
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) sidestepped when asked if the Senate GOP campaign arm would support Blankenship, saying he’s “confident [West Virginian voters will] elect somebody who can win in November.”
President Trump has compared Blankenship to former controversial Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. The NRSC cut ties with him when Moore was accused of pursuing relationships with teenage girls while he was in his 30s. Moore won the primary but lost the general election.
In addition to potentially cutting ties with Blankenship, the NRSC could take a less drastic step and passively support him by simply not speaking negatively about his candidacy.
Tillis isn’t the only GOP senator who is keeping Blankenship at arms length.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he would have a “hard time” supporting him and that he’s “not my favorite person.”
West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R) noted that she voted in the primary on Friday but refused to say who she voted for.
“I had a written record. And luckily nobody else could see it but me,” she told reporters. Asked if Blankenship as the nominee would be “problematic,” she added: “You know, let’s just see what happens.”
But Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who is retiring after 2018, urged the party not to support Blankenship, arguing his behavior shouldn’t be “normalized.”
“That’s kind of a Faustian bargain in my view. … I feel the same way [about him] as I did about Roy Moore,” he said. “You just don’t go there, you just don’t.”