GOP nightmare looms in West Virginia

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The nightmare scenario for Republicans is upon them: Former coal CEO Don Blankenship — who was in prison a year ago — is the candidate with momentum in Tuesday’s GOP primary to take on Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). 

Two internal polls show Blankenship narrowly ahead of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.), and Republicans are spooked.

{mosads}President Trump on Monday morning pleaded with West Virginia voters to back either of Blankenship’s opponents, reflecting the widespread belief in the GOP that Blankenship will lose to Manchin in November despite Trump’s popularity in the state.

“No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!” Trump tweeted in a message that recalled the GOP disaster in December that saw Democrat Doug Jones elected to the Senate over a flawed GOP nominee, conservative Roy Moore.

Blankenship got negative headlines for saying Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is seeking to create jobs for “China people” and calling the venerable GOP leader “Cocaine Mitch.”

If he wins on Tuesday, Democrats will have plenty to use against him. The former CEO of Massey Energy led the company during the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that left 29 people dead. Blankenship was released from prison on May 10, 2017, after his conviction for willfully violating mine safety and health standards. 

“If he’s the nominee, Joe Manchin skates to reelection,” one GOP source said of Blankenship on Monday. “He’s the dream opponent.” 

Blankenship is clearly being helped by the fact that he is running against both Morrisey and Jenkins, but Republicans hope Trump can make the difference in the campaign’s final 24 hours. 

Senate GOP leaders have publicly kept their distance from the battle out of concern that any moves to influence the outcome would be viewed by primary voters as meddling and ultimately backfire.

But Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, told reporters after a closed-door leadership meeting that they’ve started discussing “the various scenarios.”

“Uh, don’t know. But let’s just hope and pray that that doesn’t happen,” he added with a laugh, asked what happens if Blankenship wins. “It wouldn’t be good.”

McConnell has not said if he will personally support Blankenship if he emerges as the winner, but it seems unlikely given the former coal executive’s attacks on his family. 

McConnell’s wife is Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, a Chinese-American who was born in Taiwan. Blankenship has attacked McConnell for his “extensive ties” to China and released an ad saying that McConnell had received money from his “China family.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has not taken a position in the primary, has also not made a decision about what, if any, support it will offer Blankenship if he wins.

It would be “uncharted territory” for the party if Blankenship wins, said the GOP source, who expressed some skepticism that Blankenship really had momentum. 

“It would not say good things about where the Republican Party is at,” the source said.

Blankenship and his campaign say it will be up to Washington Republicans to make nice if they ever want a reconciliation.
“I don’t know. I would say that’s probably more up to Sen. McConnell,” said Greg Thomas, a spokesman and adviser for Blankenship, when asked about whether the sides could make up. “He started it.”

Blankenship is running a slash-and-burn campaign, and has been spending $100,000 per day over the final six days of the race. 

He fired back at the president over his tweet, saying Trump has been misled by the “establishment.” 

“No matter how much Cocaine Mitch McConnell and the D.C. Swamp creatures lie to the voters, and mislead our President, they cannot change the focus of our conservative voters,” Blankenship said on Monday. “We cannot be of The Swamp if we want to Drain The Swamp.”
Blankenship also described himself as “Trumpier than Trump,” while distancing himself from the president by telling local media that Trump “recommended people vote for a guy that was basically accused of pedophilia in Alabama.” 

That’s a reference to Moore, who lost following reports that he had inappropriate relationships, including sexual ones, with teenage girls decades ago.

Blankenship had been nearly written off by national Republicans a week ago when a spate of public polling showed him receding to third place. 

But both national Republicans and Blankenship’s campaign acknowledge that the former coal baron performed well in a nationally televised Fox News debate and that the performance is likely fueling his comeback in the polls.

Thomas said they had seen “more than a bump” following the debate and the internal polling shows them with a “double digit” lead.

Internal polling, according to a separate statement from the campaign on Monday, shows Blankenship with a 17-point lead at 37 percent of the vote compared to 20 percent for Morrisey and 15 percent for Jenkins.

Republicans expressed skepticism that Blankenship really has anything like that kind of lead on Monday, and noted that his campaign didn’t release the methodology of how the survey was conducted.

But Blankenship’s rivals clearly view him as a top threat after spending much of the primary ignoring his presence in the race.

A rival campaign confirmed that its internal polling shows Blankenship with 28 percent of the GOP primary vote, followed by Morrisey at 27 percent and Jenkins at 15 percent. The same campaign released numbers last month showing Blankenship in third place.

Morrisey has turned his fire on Blankenship in the twilight of the race, trying to use the fact that Blankenship hasn’t filed a financial disclosure to paint a broader narrative of what, he argues, is a disregard for the law.

He also released a last-minute digital ad on Tuesday hitting Blankenship over his role in the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. Blankenship’s parole ends this week.

“I think that Blankenship obviously has seen some lift in the polls, so I’ll acknowledge that,” Morrisey told WV MetroNews’s “Talkline” on Monday. “I quite frankly underestimated that Don Blankenship — I never thought he was a credible candidate.” 

Blankenship told CBS News that he hadn’t ruled out running as a third-party candidate. But West Virginia has a “sore losers” law that blocks candidates from changing their party affiliation after losing the primary in order to appear on the general election ballot. He could, theoretically, stage a write-in campaign.

Tags Donald Trump Elaine Chao Evan Jenkins Joe Manchin John Thune Mitch McConnell Roy Moore

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