Morrisey wins W.Va. Senate primary, averting GOP fears

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is projected to win the GOP Senate primary, ending Republican fears that ex-coal executive Don Blankenship could win the nomination and blow Republican chances in November for a key Senate seat.

The Associated Press called the race at 10:19 p.m. EDT.

Morrisey defeated his leading GOP rivals, Blankenship 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, for the chance to take on Democratic Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinManchin says he won't support LGBTQ protection bill as written Senators offer bipartisan bill to fix 'retail glitch' in GOP tax law Murkowski, Manchin call for 'responsible solutions' to climate change MORE in November.

The attorney general’s victory means Republicans fended off the possibility of a win by Blankenship, who served a year-long prison sentence for violating mine safety standards following a deadly mine explosion that killed 29 people.

In the final days of the primary, Republicans were growing increasingly worried that Blankenship would hurt the party’s ability to unseat Manchin, even though President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE won West Virginia more than 40 points in 2016.

The party feared a repeat of last year’s Alabama special election, when Democrats pulled off a huge upset victory in a deep-red state. Republican Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoy Moore says he's 'seriously considering' 2020 Senate bid Doug Jones: Trump unintentionally giving 'green light' to hate crimes GOP candidate welcomes Roy Moore to enter Alabama Senate primary MORE, a conservative firebrand, won the nomination, but ultimately lost the general election to now-Sen. Doug Jones (D) when the Washington Post reported allegations that Moore molested teenagers decades earlier.

Throughout the campaign, Blankenship repeatedly called for new leadership and sparred with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump: Green New Deal 'the most preposterous thing' and 'easy to beat' 2020 Dems avoid this year's AIPAC conference GOP eager to exploit Dem court-packing fight MORE (R-Ky.) and his allies.

Blankenship nicknamed McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” and “swamp captain.” But he has raised eyebrows for referring to McConnell’s father-in-law as a “China person,” arguing that the Kentucky Republican wants to create jobs for “China people.”

During his concession speech on Tuesday night, Blankenship defended his attacks against McConnell, saying that he believes Trump’s call for voters to reject him likely contributed to his loss.

"I am being asked of course whether some of the things we did, whether it's 'Cocaine Mitch' or whether its some of the other criticisms of Mitch McConnell, whether its 'China People' that made the difference. I don't think so," Blankenship said.

"If there was any single factor, based on the polling of different times...it was probably President Trump's lack of endorsement...I don't know what else it would have been unless the polls were way off."

Meanwhile, Republicans celebrated Blankenship's third-place finish.

 

McConnell's campaign tweeted a photo of McConnell superimposed over an image of Colombian cocaine trafficker Pablo Escobar from the Netflix series "Narcos," with McConnell surrounded in image by cocaine. 

"Thanks for playing, @DonBlankenship. #WVSen," the campaign tweeted, referencing the "Cocaine Mitch" nickname.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) never took an official stance during the primary, but quickly congratulated Morrisey “on his hard-fought victory.”

“Unlike loyal Democrat Joe Manchin, West Virginia families know that they can count on Attorney General Morrisey to fight for conservative values, and will send him to the U.S. Senate this November,” said NRSC executive director Chris Hansen.

Morrisey also largely focused his victory speech on Manchin and the general election fight for the next six months. He railed against the Democratic senator for being aligned with the "Washington elite" instead of Trump's agenda.

“Joe Manchin has become just another rubber stamp for the Washington establishment liberal agenda, the same people who think of us as fly over country," Morrisey said Tuesdaynight.

“When President Trump needed Joe Manchin’s help on so many issues, Joe Manchin said no. When the president wanted to work with him on ObamaCare, on judicial picks, on the Trump tax cuts, Senator Manchin said no.”

Republicans view West Virginia as a top pick-up opportunity to help expand their slim 51-seat majority. And they believe Morrisey has a great shot at toppling Manchin.

When Blankenship appeared to be in a strong position a few weeks back, an outside group with ties to the national GOP dumped more than $1 million into attack ads to stymie the ex-coal baron’s momentum.

Some polls in the final weeks showed Morrisey in first place or polling close behind in second, but internal GOP surveys over the weekend found Blankenship rebounding into the lead.

When it appeared that Blankenship was surging ahead of Tuesday’sprimary, Republicans made a last-ditch effort to counter him. Trump tweeted on Monday, calling on voters to support either Jenkins or Morrisey.

Morrisey himself waged an all-out offensive against Blankenship in the final days of the race. His campaign released a handful of press releases about why he’s unfit for office. And the day before the primary, Morrisey launched an attack ad over the 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine.

Still, the majority of Morrisey’s campaign was focused on touting his pro-Trump bona fides and highlighting his efforts as state attorney general to fight Obama administration initiatives. He also argued that he was the only candidate in the race combating the ongoing opioid epidemic.

Morrisey mostly sparred with Jenkins in a vicious, year-long campaign. The attorney general sought to cast Jenkins as a “lifelong career Democrat for 20 years.” But Morrisey also endured his fair share of attacks that will likely be used by Democrats in the general election.

Jenkins hammered Morrisey for his tri-state area roots and criticized him for working as a Washington lobbyist with ties to the pharmaceutical industry. 

Following Morrisey’s victory, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) issued a statement that gave an early preview of how Democrats will likely take on the state attorney general.

“Patrick Morrisey emerges tonight badly bruised from a bizarre primary contest that focused on personal political attacks instead of West Virginians,” DSCC spokesman David Bergstein said. “Now Morrisey will be forced to defend his lobbyist past and convince West Virginians that he isn’t beholden to special interests, despite taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from them.”

A Democratic outside group only spent a small sum of money opposing Morrisey, instead spending most of it on Jenkins. Those efforts were viewed as a way to boost Blankenship. But a spokesman said the super PAC’s data showed that Jenkins or Morrisey was likely to be the nominee.

Duty and Country PAC, a Washington-based Democratic super PAC, poured in more than $1 million in an attempt to cut down the congressman, while spending only $47,000 against Morrisey.

—Ben Kamisar contributed.