National Republicans — on the heels of the Roy Moore and Rick Saccone debacles — worry they’re staring down their latest potential midterm election fiasco: coal baron and recent federal prisoner Don Blankenship.
With Blankenship skyrocketing in the West Virginia Republican Senate primary and blanketing the airwaves with ads assailing his fractured field of rivals as career politicians, senior party officials are wrestling with how, or even whether, to intervene. Many of them are convinced that Blankenship, who served a one-year sentence after the deadly 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine, would be a surefire loser against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin — and potentially become a national stain for the party.
The discussions have intensified over the past few weeks. During separate meetings with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, aides to Blankenship’s two primary opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, pointed to Blankenship’s traction and questioned what could be done to stop him. The Senate GOP campaign arm, which heard out the appeals, recently commissioned a survey to gauge the coal king’s electoral strength and determine his staying power in the race.
Those familiar with the party’s deliberations say the results are clear: With a little more than a month until the May 8 primary, Blankenship, a towering figure in West Virginia politics long before this campaign and an avid opponent of unions, has vaulted into essentially a three-way tie with his rivals and is positioned to move ahead.
The talks underscore the intense pressure Republicans are under in the era of Trump, as they struggle to control insurgent figures with large grass-roots conservative followings. While some senior Republicans are anxious to block Blankenship, others believe that such a move could backfire and turn him into a martyr— much as it did when the national GOP dropped millions of dollars in an unsuccessful attempt to take down Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in a Republican primary.
Like Moore, Blankenship is an entrenched, anti-establishment figure running in a conservative state. In an interview with POLITICO, the 68-year-old Blankenship dared the party to come after him.
“I think it would get me votes if they did,” he said. “I think the Republicans in West Virginia are not really happy with the Republicans in the Senate and the House in general.”
Further deepening the tensions is a long-simmering distrust between Blankenship and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), another powerful Appalachian Republican. Blankenship has spoken with McConnell over the years and said he never found him sufficiently supportive of the coal industry. McConnell, for his part, was recently quoted as saying he did not want Blankenship to win the nomination.
National Republicans have been struck by the potency of Blankenship’s campaign. Earlier this year, Blankenship and his longtime political strategist, Greg Thomas, traveled to Washington to meet with the White House political affairs office. During the meeting, Blankenship described his battles with Manchin and outlined how he’d used his deep pockets to fund Republican campaigns in a state that until the past decade had been dominated by Democrats.
White House officials, who’ve also met with Jenkins and Morrisey, came away thinking that Blankenship was for real.
Blankenship’s rise has been driven in part by his self-financed TV ads. Since launching his campaign in late November, Blankenship has spent over $1.1 million on roughly a dozen commercials, according to media buying totals, far surpassing his opponents. Morrisey has aired about $450,000 worth of ads and Jenkins only about $38,000.
Blankenship has used the ads to paint his rivals as insufficiently conservative, blasting Jenkins over his positions on Obamacare and climate change and Morrisey on abortion. He’s positioned himself as an unshakable ally of President Donald Trump, who received 68 percent of the vote in the state.
Yet he has also undertaken an effort to clear his name.
The spots have accused the Obama administration and Manchin — who was governor at the time of the mine disaster and has said Blankenship has “blood on his hands” — of conspiring to imprison him. He has also featured testimonialsfrom his daughter, Jennifer, who’s described her father as a soft-hearted family man and provider for West Virginians.
Even before he entered the race late last year, Blankenship was a familiar face on West Virginia TV sets. After being released from prison in 2017, he invested around $600,000 on a slate of commercials aimed at redeeming himself.
“He’s running ads, he has money. He’s not a wallflower,” said Hoppy Kercheval, an influential radio show host in the state. “He’s a puncher and a counterpuncher.”
“He’s the guy that’s on the move. He’s the guy that’s gaining traction in this wide open race,” Kercheval added. “I think it has this everyman appeal in West Virginia.”
Yet Blankenship’s appeal, many believe, runs deeper. During the 2000s, he spent heavily out of his own pocket to buttress the GOP at a time when it was weak in the state, earning him goodwill with many in the party. And while many blamed him for the 2010 explosion, which killed 29 miners, others in the coal-dependent state came to see Blankenship as a pivotal economic force through his leadership of Massey Energy.
Blankenship’s allies insist that any comparison to Moore is unfair, and argue that he’ll be a viable nominee in November. Unlike Moore, in Alabama, they say, Blankenship has established a substantial campaign apparatus and surrounded himself with seasoned advisers who’ve worked with him over the years, including Thomas. His ability to self-fund makes him a serious threat to Manchin, they contend.
National GOP officials say they’ve made no decision on whether to weigh in against Blankenship, though several said they expected the Senate committee to create a menu of options. But they contend that any possible option poses serious risks. The GOP, which wants to remain neutral in the primary, is reluctant to endorse either Jenkins or Morrisey. And advertising against Blankenship directly risks a serious backlash. Some simply want to leave it up to Jenkins and Morrisey to take him on.
Blankenship acknowledged the possibility that the national party could intervene against him. But he argued that it shouldn’t.
“Fundamentally, I support the Republican Party. I have supported them for years,” he said. “I certainly think they should embrace me because I’ve been a Republican in West Virginia long before it was cool to be a Republican in West Virginia.”
“They shouldn’t be afraid of me being up there,” he added.