GOP worries Blankenship surge will cost party W. Va. Senate seat

 

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — A former coal CEO’s post-prison rise is scrambling the GOP battle to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination The Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world MORE (W.Va.).

Don Blankenship, released from jail less than a year ago, now appears to be within striking distance of the party’s nomination.

Strategists — and even his primary opponents — acknowledge he’s managed to turn an expected showdown between Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsMore than 50 Dem House challengers outraise GOP incumbents Key Republican says House taking targeted approach to combating opioid epidemic Dem candidate denies W.Va. is racist for rejecting Obama MORE (W.Va.) and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey into a three-way fight with roughly a month to go until the May 8 primary election.

“It is a weird little race right now, [but] it’s looking like a legitimate three-person race,” said a national GOP strategist who is monitoring the Senate fight.

Blankenship’s anti-establishment message is resonating in a state that has turned increasingly red. Recent internal polling from Morrisey and Jenkins place him in second place  — with first place varying based on the candidate releasing the polling.

“I’m an anti-establishment. Have been long before I ever heard of Trump or looked at politics,” Blankenship told The Hill outside a candidate forum in Martinsburg, W. Va.

It’s a dramatic turnaround for a man who has been out of prison for less than a year. Blankenship was sentenced to a year after the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine exploded, killing 29 miners. Government investigators concluded the blast was caused by Blankenship’s company’s failure to clean up coal dust sufficiently.

In Blankenship’s version, he was targeted by the Obama administration and Manchin, who said following the accident that Blankenship had “blood on his hands” While in jail, Blankenship published a manifesto describing himself a “political prisoner.”

“The people that are knowledgeable of the mining and what happened at UBB know that ... if anyone blew up the mine, the government did, and they have the privilege of being able to investigate themselves ” he said, when asked how frequently the issue is brought up as he’s campaigned around the state. 

Blankenship’s rise has been fueled, in part, by deep pockets that have allowed him to crisscross the state and flood the inexpensive media market with TV ads. Blankenship had the airwaves largely to himself until last month. 
 
“I’ve lived in the poor house. I’ve lived in the big house. ... I’ve got more experience, more understanding of what it takes to turn this country around than those who have been in Washington drinking the swamp water,” he said.

His ascendance is setting off alarm bells in Washington. Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellKey GOP senators appear cool to Kavanaugh accuser's demand Trump hints at new executive action on immigration, wants filibuster-proof Senate majority The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump MORE (R-Ky.) told The New York Times earlier this year that he didn’t want Blankenship to win the primary. Trump won the state by more than 40 points in 2016, suggesting it should be an easy win for the GOP — but Republicans worry Blankenship would be too controversial to win in the general election. 

Republicans have grown increasingly worried about their chances to hold on to the Senate in November, making a pick-up in West Virginia crucial to the majority. McConnell told the Kentucky Today editorial board that Republicans “don’t know whether it’s going to be a Category 3, 4 or 5” storm they'll face. 

But they’ve also acutely aware of the Alabama Senate race, where Republicans went all-in fighting conservative firebrand Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreRoy Moore dismisses Kavanaugh accusation: 'So obvious' when claims come 'just days before a very important event' DOJ looking into 'concerning' behavior by employee in Project Veritas video Corey Stewart fires aide who helped bring far-right ideas to campaign: report MORE in the primary, only for the strategy to backfire.

Patrick Hickey, a professor at West Virginia University, added that Blankenship is a “very polarizing figure” but an “anti-Obama argument in general is something people buy into" in West Virginia.

“A lot of people outside of West Virginia look at this guy who did a year in prison … so they’re like, how can this be a serious candidate?” said Mike Plante, a Democratic strategist based in West Virginia. “[But] the idea that the cultural elites are out against me … finds fertile ground.”

The GOP strategist acknowledged that voters are wary of outside involvement in Senate primary races. Blankenship, meanwhile, predicted such attacks would be a “positive” and said outside groups “don’t really carry much weight in the election.” 

A spokesman for McConnell declined to comment. But Blankenship says the tight-lipped GOP leader won’t support him because “he doesn’t want the swamp to be drained.” 

Blankenship added that, if elected, he wouldn’t support McConnell to be majority leader, if the party keeps control of the Senate, or GOP leader, if they lose the majority. 

“I have no intention of working with the party. The parties are too powerful,” he said.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) is in contact with each of the GOP campaigns and, with the lack of a GOP incumbent, hasn’t picked a side.  

Trump appeared at an event with Jenkins and Morrisey on Thursday, where he criticized Manchin and told both of the men "good luck" in the primary fight. A GOP strategist noted the event “seems very telling on where Trump is at politically with the ... primary.”

But Blankenship brushed aside a question about the event — he said his campaign had been assured it is an “official visit, not a political visit” — and predicted the White House will stay on the sidelines. He’s also met with White House political advisers, calling the meeting “very cordial.”

“I think they’re going to stand aside, if you will, and let the Republican race be what it is, and then I’ll go up and tell them how we’re going to beat Manchin,” he said.

Manchin has been tight-lipped about Blankenship’s bid. In a statement from his campaign, he called the GOP race a “nasty primary” but declined to comment “out of respect for our coal miners and their families who are still grieving the loss of their loved ones.”

To get to Manchin, Blankenship first has to win next month’s GOP primary. Jenkins and Morrisey have largely trained their fire on each other, not Blankenship.

Blankenship’s time in prison or the mine explosion didn’t come up during the hour-long candidate forum in Martinsburg. Morrisey separately released a statement on Thursday — the eight-year anniversary of the explosion — that didn’t mention Blankenship. 

“We’re primarily focused on ... talking about Patrick’s conservative record and contrasting that with Jenkins’s liberal record,” said Nachama Soloveichik, a spokeswoman for Morrisey, while acknowledging it would be a “close race.”

Jenkins’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. Jenkins has accused Blankenship of spending nearly $2 million to attack him — a figure Blankenship’s campaign says is inaccurate. Jenkins told Fox News that “there’s a clear distinction between my candidacy .... a convicted criminal [and] opioid industry peddler.” 

Outside observers say Morissey and Jenkins could be reluctant to attack Blankenship out of concern that it could only give Blankenship more of the spotlight while making them look like the establishment.

“The danger [is] that if you give someone too much oxygen it helps them. It doesn't hurt them,” Hickey said.

Blankenship also warned during the Martinsburg event that he would hit back if he felt that another candidate lied about him.

It's unclear how much money Blankenship has to fuel his campaign. He reportedly made at least $17.8 million in salary in 2009 and loaned his campaign $400,000 late last year, according to Federal Election Commission documents. But, based on a search of the Senate Ethics Committee's database, it appears he hasn't yet filed a financial disclosure form that would detail any income, assets or financial liabilities. 

Greg Thomas, a longtime consultant and spokesman, separately noted the campaign doesn’t have limits on its budget and “Mr. Blankenship is going to spend whatever it takes to win.”

“I’m the most popular hostile campaigner in the country probably,” Blankenship said. “I’m not running to make friends with the candidates you see up here.”

Instead, the forum in the state’s eastern panhandle was largely about the candidates competing to align themselves close to Trump. 

But Blankenship and outside observers are quick to paint the former CEO as a sort of pre-Trump Trump: a wealthy, anti-establishment figure who has been a part of the state’s political scene for more than a decade, is willing to spend his own money and isn’t afraid to battle with the media. 

“I’m closer to his beliefs than any candidate or any official in Washington,” Blankenship said, when asked how closely he’ll align with Trump if he’s ultimately elected.

“[He’s a] business guy with immense resources and sort of an immense cult of personality about himself who is not afraid to take on the media and take on the establishment,” Plante, the Democratic strategist, added. “Who is more like Donald Trump than Don Blankenship?”

Blankenship shot down a Washington Post reporter’s attempt to interview him before the Martinsburg event, quipping that he was “afraid” of the publication.

“I just know they lie. There’s no upside for me. I’m ahead in the election. ... So what’s the upside by giving the Washington Post the chance to add credibility to their article by saying they talked to me?” he said. 

But whether or not Blankenship can mimic Trump’s surprise victory and ultimately pull ahead in the primary remains to be seen. 

"I didn't think he was really a serious candidate who could possibly win, but I'm very reluctant to say that now,” said Hickey. 

A GOP strategist noted that “any Republican should be competitive in the state” but suggested that Blankenship had “baggage”—his time in jail and the mine explosion—that made it more likely Jenkins or Morrisey would win.

Asked why his candidacy wasn't take seriously initially, Blankenship pointed to the media, and predicted people would come around as they got to know him. 

“The truth is, they thought people were going to vote for the Don Blankenship that the media describes. And that’s not Don Blankenship,” he said. “ I wouldn’t vote for the guy that the media describes.”

Updated: 4:37 p.m.