TRIADELPHIA, W.Va.— On a recent Thursday afternoon, less than nine months after he was released from prison for his role in the worst U.S. mine explosion in the past 40 years, Don Blankenship made his first campaign stop of the day at a shopping center in the skinny spike of West Virginia’s northern panhandle. For 25 minutes, he delivered an anti-government assault, railing against the “District of Corruption” and demanding drug tests “for as many officials as possible,” everyone from judges to members of Congress, which he believes would lead to dozens of high-level government employees losing their jobs.
His vehement, if soft-spoken, speech was received enthusiastically by the one person in the audience who was not a member of his staff, a reporter covering the event or a tracker paid by Blankenship’s opponents to videotape the event. The middle-aged woman told Blankenship she liked what he had to say, and she’d be supporting him in the primary. For months, Blankenship has been appearing at these town halls (he wants to do at least one in all 55 counties in West Virginia) in a quest to unseat second-term Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin. The spreads of food have always been lavish, even if the crowds haven‘t.
Admittedly, this part of the state was not his power base when he was the bottom-line-driven CEO of Massey Energy, one of the state’s largest mining companies. (“I used to come up here to sell coal,” he told me later in an interview. “Before Obama.”) But the almost nonexistent turnout seemed about right for a man who just three years ago had a statewide approval rating of 10 percent, lower even than Congress, the standard for disdain. In 2015, when he was sentenced to a year in prison on a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety standards in the 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine, three-fifths of people surveyed thought the judge should have put him away for longer.
Initially, Blankenship had told prison officials that upon his release he planned to move to Nevada, where his girlfriend lives. Instead, on January 23 he signed the papers to challenge Manchin. A 67-page manifesto he had written in prison decrying his political persecution by the Obama Justice Department effectively became his political platform. The idea that a former inmate who many view as an unrepentant murderer would dare to run for Senate seemed laughable at first, even to members of his own party.
“Has he been out of house arrest?” Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in February when asked whether he worries about Blankenship winning the GOP primary. “We’re talking about a guy who should still be in jail,” says Phil Smith, director of governmental affairs for the United Mine Workers of America, which has clashed with Blankenship since the 1980s.
“You can’t really get away from your roots,” Blankenship, 68, told me when I ask why he didn’t just retire to Nevada.
There’s more to it, of course, than just an urge to come home, although Blankenship’s attachment to West Virginia is such that he continued to live there even when running the Richmond-based Massey. Blankenship wants to settle a score. And for all his unpopularity—miners’ families have confronted him repeatedly at campaign stops—he is finding a receptive audience in a Republican Party motivated as much by hatred for Democrats as the advancement of conservative policy. (GOP leaders in Washington don’t share the enthusiasm for Blankenship, whom they consider as toxic as Roy Moore.)
“He has an ego and a pocketbook that rivals Donald Trump,” says former Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, who, like most of the politicians in the state, dealt with Blankenship when his power was at his peak. “And he’s out to rehabilitate his image.”
But operatives in both parties now say there’s no denying Blankenship is in the top tier of candidates in the race, along with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins. The major reason? His time in prison didn’t deprive him of the fortune he earned running Massey Energy, and he spent more than $2 million on television ads before Morrisey and Jenkins’ campaigns could run their first spot on television.
But the deceptively low-key candidate with a well-earned reputation as a political brawler has a pitch seemingly perfectly designed for a Republican electorate in the era of Donald Trump. Blankenship’s foils are the same ones Trump battered on his way to winning 68 percent of the vote in West Virginia. When Blankenship mentions Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two of the most reviled Democrats in this deeply red state, it’s not just a gratuitous name-check. It’s a personal feud, one that many still-out-of-work coal miners feel just as bitterly.
“I don’t know that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and so forth hate anyone more than they hate me,” Blankenship says, noting Clinton even criticized him in her book, “What Happened.” Or, as his political consultant, Greg Thomas, put it to me: “Having the opponent’s Department of Justice put you in jail is the ultimate street cred.”
That’s assuming he can survive the primary. Both Morrisey and Jenkins have released polls in recent weeks showing Blankenship near the front of the pack, although the polls disagree on whom he’s battling for the top spot. A matchup with Manchin, a former acquaintance he blames alongside Obama for his conviction, is a far likelier and more discomfiting possibility than Republicans had ever imagined.
Why? It might just be because, like a certain billionaire turned populist, he has managed to transform his image from greedy coal baron into something approaching a victim of the Deep State, arguing an incompetent bureaucracy and a corrupt Justice Department jailed him.
“I have the knowledge and the means. I’ve done these types of things long before it could be said to be redemption,” he says when asked why he’s running. But he quickly adds: “I do think D.C.’s very corrupt. I think we’ve got a real problem. My situation, I think, is another example of DOJ misbehavior, and I think eventually that will be proven.”
One of the first things you notice about Don Blankenship is that his voice should be louder. For a man who has changed the economic, political and literal geographic landscape of West Virginia over the course of his 67 years, you expect thunder, but you get something like the sound of a midlevel manager delivering a third-quarter sales report. But that contrast is only one of many surrounding Blankenship. He’s been a hero to some of his employees, wooed them with parties, free trips to Dollywood, beer and bonuses. He’s been a villain to environmentalists and unions, the central antagonist in at least two books and countless news stories.
At times, he’s embraced his image as a villain, calling himself “the most hated man in Mingo County.” In a video on his website, a much younger Blankenship describes his ideology, a no-holds-barred capitalism. He calls himself an “American Competitionist.”
“It’s like a jungle, where a jungle is survival of the fittest,” he says in the video. “Unions, communities, people, everybody’s going to have learn and to accept that in the United States is a capitalist society. And that capitalism, from a business viewpoint, is survival of the most productive.”
Even before the disaster at Upper Big Branch that made him a national name, Blankenship was notorious in his state. A brief taste of his well-documented history of controversy: He was fined millions of dollars for federal environmental violations, accused of improperly dumping highly toxic coal slurry underground and in local waterways, poisoning the drinking water. He ordered Massey to treat each of its small subsidiaries as independent companies, making it more difficult for the United Mine Workers to negotiate individual contracts. Blankenship bullied smaller coal companies, and the owner of one eventually won a $50 million judgment against Massey after it had been forced into bankruptcy. (The judgment was later overturned.) He set up competitions that encouraged miners not to report injuries, and eventually admitted to shareholders that Massey had massively underreported injuries.
So it was little surprise that on the night of the disaster, family members of the dead miners had already identified him as responsible in some way. They screamed at him, saying he cared more about profits than miners’ lives. One threw a chair when the death toll was announced. The state’s senior senator at the time, Democrat Robert Byrd, said at a Senate hearing Blankenship had shown a “clear record of blatant disregard for the welfare and safety of Massey miners.” Manchin, then the governor, said he had blood on his hands.
But the man Rolling Stone once dubbed “The Dark Lord of Coal Country” doesn’t sound like it. He sounds, well, like the accountant he originally trained to become at Marshall University after growing up poor in Mingo County. He lacks a politician’s cadence, lacks almost any cadence at all, is entirely devoid of rah-rah. He’s not physically imposing, and his signature mustache is unremarkable. Davitt McAteer, a former head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told me Blankenship is proud of rarely raising his voice, and suggests it’s Blankenship’s way of showing himself that he’s not a bully.
And so, at the Triadelphia event and one I attended in Weirton the following day, the program opens with Blankenship letting others do the speaking for him. First comes a slideshow of photos of Massey’s charitable events: An elementary school poetry contest; free picnics with horse and buggy rides. The first speaker is a woman named Gwen Skeens, the rare family member of an Upper Big Branch miner who doesn’t blame Massey for the incident. She says her brother, Grover, an electrician at the mine, wrote in his diary about how much he enjoyed working for Massey Energy. She says Grover was worried about changes MSHA was making in the mine in the days before the explosion.
“West Virginia needs him,” she says of Blankenship, who she says is the victim of persecution and a politically motivated prosecution. “The media, [MSHAhe Mine Safety and Health Administration] and Senator Manchin all know they are misleading the public when they indicate all 29 families have negative feelings towards Don.”
Skeens leaves the stage. Blankenship comes on and briefly introduces two of his television ads, which play on screen. He then jumps into a mostly standard GOP stump speech: He praises Trump, calls Manchin a puppet of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, demands a secure border and an end to Common Core educational standards. But he adds some only-in-West-Virginia emphasis on the mining industry.
He says MSHA should be split into two and argues the agency fails to investigate its own failings. He says the explosion at Upper Big Branch was the regulator’s fault, due to a ventilation system it forced Massey Energy to install. This is also a common theme of his television ads, one of which goes so far as to compare the Upper Big Branch disaster to the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“In 2012, four Americans were killed by terrorists in Benghazi, Libya. Many say the Obama administration hid the Benghazi truth,” a deep-voiced narrator says. “The truth about more killed Americans has also been hidden. In 2010, 29 Americans were killed. None were ambassadors, none were CIA agents, none were killed by terrorists. They were American coal miners killed when the U.S. government reduced their mine’s air flow. President Trump must be told the truth about Obama’s deadliest cover-up.”
Another ad features a miner who worked for Massey telling viewers to “vote for Don, and he’ll make miners safe.”
Blankenship hopes to turn the testimony from family members and miners into a simple question about culpability, not his but that of the previous president. He says: “The people will decide whether they believe Barack Obama’s prosecutors and judges or the coal miners who were there.”
The coal miners who were there are dead, but their families are still alive. One of them told a local television station: “Everything [Blankenship] says is a lie.” Another told a local newspaper that Blankenship’s entire Senate run is “a slap in the face.” Another, when Blankenship was acquitted of most charges at his trial, said: “It was a sense of disappointment because I wanted him to rot in hell.”
McAteer, the former MSHA head, is the man Manchin appointed to run the state’s investigation into the disaster. He’s watched Blankenship try to rehabilitate himself again and again since the disaster. The former CEO released a 51-minute documentary on YouTube arguing a freak burst of natural gas caused the explosion, not the official explanation of a coal-dust explosion. After his conviction, Blankenship sent McAteer one of the 250,000 copies he printed of a 67-page manifesto he titled “An American Political Prisoner.” The booklet alleges conflicts of interests in the prosecution, accuses Obama and other liberal politicians of unfairly prejudging him before the trial. “They displayed no regard for the Constitution, ethics, or fairness. Nepotism, bias, politics, and a desire for personal gain drove their actions. Career politicians assisted the prosecutors as best they could by publicly declaring me guilty before any investigation, and then again before trial,” Blankenship wrote.
But McAteer said that’s all a smokescreen.
“The science doesn’t bear him out,” McAteer says. “He can say this as many times as he wants, but it doesn’t make a lie the truth.”
McAteer said there was a reason both the state investigation and the one by MSHA reached the same conclusion: It was the truth. Massey ignored safety checks, the mine’s ventilation system was poor and a buildup of coal dust led to the explosion. Coal mines are supposed to use crushed limestone to neutralize coal dust, which is highly explosive. But Massey had failed to do so at more than 1,500 locations in the mine in the months leading up to the disaster.
“It is only in the context of a culture bent on production at the expense of safety that these obvious deviations from decades of known safety practices make sense,” McAteer’s panel wrote in its final report.
With all this baggage, how can Blankenship be doing as well as he is?
I get a hint of an answer at the end of Blankenship’s town hall in Weirton, when I spoke to the Rev. Becky Deitch, chairwoman of the Brooke County GOP. She was eating her lunch with a friend, and she told me she’s ready to vote for Blankenship after hearing him out. “The common man doesn’t want another politician,” she said. “I could tell from his handshake. He’s real.”
I asked her about the deaths at Upper Big Branch, but she brushed it off.
“Most of us should be in jail for the things we do,” she said. “We just haven’t been caught. No one’s gone after us.”
The Blankenship campaign is counting on there being a lot of voters like Deitch, who are willing to forgive what he did or believe he’s the victim of an Obama administration frame-up.
“It’s as important for him to clear his name as it is for him to win this race,” said a West Virginia GOP operative supporting Blankenship who wasn’t authorized to speak about the race on the record.
In an increasingly conspiracy-minded GOP, where President Donald Trump got his real political start by embracing the falsehood that his predecessor was born outside the United States and some other Republican Senate candidates have played footsie or fully embraced right-wing conspiracy theorists, it’s not hard to believe Blankenship’s pitch, backed by at least some of his former employees and amplified by the television ads he can buy with millions, catching on with GOP primary voters. And Blankenship is willing to spend a lot to find out just how many of them: “I’ll spend whatever it takes. That’s what I’ve always done.”
That possibility is terrifying to some Republicans, who think that whatever appeal Blankenship might have for their base wouldn’t translate in a statewide run against Manchin. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell considers Blankenship to be an unacceptable candidate, putting him in the same category as GOP failures of the recent past—Roy Moore in Alabama, Todd Akin in Missouri.
Anti-establishment to his core, Blankenship doesn’t feel a hint of regret that national figures from his own party are already lining up against him. “I was against McConnell long before he was against me,” Blankenship says of the Kentucky Republican, whom he once considered an ally in the battles against the Obama administration’s climate change efforts. But in 2014, Blankenship wrote an essay on his website bashing McConnell and noting the senator’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, sat on the board of a Michael Bloomberg-backed group that funded the Sierra Club. “Electing McConnell is better than sending a Democrat that will always support Obama to D.C., but McConnell is not a coal guy,” Blankenship wrote at the time.
Many Republicans in D.C. and West Virginia didn’t think Blankenship’s run was serious at first. He had already been paying for television ads promoting his theory of the Upper Big Branch explosion and alleging a Justice Department coverup, and it appeared his entrance into the race was simply an attempt to get cheaper ad rates.
But McConnell and the rest of the GOP establishment may soon have to confront the possibility of Blankenship picking up the GOP nomination. A Jenkins-commissioned poll released earlier this month showed Blankenship with 27 percent of the vote, just behind the incumbent congressman at 29 percent. Morrisey was in third with just 19 percent. Some Jenkins supporters, and some national Republicans who think the congressman is the party’s best chance to beat Manchin, think Blankenship’s presence in the race will only eat away at Morrisey’s vote share, as the two candidates will split the anti-establishment vote.
In his speech in Triadelphia, Blankenship reminded his audience of one that he was a power in the party long before he registered to run for Senate. Indeed, he took credit for there being any competition in this primary at all. Morrisey, a native of New Jersey who ran for Congress in the Garden State in 2000, would never have moved to West Virginia if Blankenship’s money hadn’t helped fund the state GOP’s rise to power, he said. And Jenkins, a native West Virginian, was a Democrat who only switched parties in 2014 to challenge Nick Rahall. If Blankenship hadn’t changed the state’s politics, Blankenship said, Jenkins would still be a Democrat like Manchin.
“Our efforts have brought us a New York-born Republican who moved here just to run for office,” he said of Morrisey. “The last person to move here solely to run for office was a Democrat named Jay Rockefeller. That’s a demonstration of how successful we’ve been.”
Blankenship wasn’t exaggerating. He spent $3 million on a 2004 state Supreme Court race, attacking incumbent Warren McGraw as a friend of pedophiles. The man who beat McGraw later sided with Massey Energy on a key case, and refused to recuse himself. Blankenship later funded an unsuccessful effort to win the state House of Delegates for Republicans and has splashed hundreds of thousands of dollars on federal elections over the years. He funded groups that employed many of the state’s GOP operatives.
The work he did building up the party—funding delegate races and groups that employed many of the state’s GOP operatives when the state was still firmly in the hands of Democrats—have also given him a base of goodwill among party regulars old enough to remember his involvement.
And so it’s unclear how well Morrisey‘s and Jenkins’ attacks on Blankenship might land. While the two have battled each other extensively since both their campaigns launched last year, they’ve only recently taken aim at the coal baron.
“Should WV elect a current Nevada resident as our next Senator?” Morrisey wrote this week on Twitter. “Serious question as one is running.”
National Republicans are waiting to see the effect of the attacks before deciding whether direct action is needed to prevent a Blankenship victory. Jenkins recently began airing positive ads, where he drives a truck through West Virginia’s famous country roads and promises to work with President Donald Trump. And an outside group just started airing ads boosting Morrisey. The eyes of the GOP will be on polling on the race to see whether either candidate can start to pull away from Blankenship.
Meanwhile, Blankenship allies are starting to look for the Jeff Sessions of West Virginia—an establishment figure in the state who is willing to lend their credibility to his bid the way the then-Alabama senator lent his to the fledgling presidential bid of Donald J. Trump.
A Manchin-vs.-Blankenship election would be a revenge match. Blankenship and Manchin were once friendly, at least in the way any governor would be friendly with any top employer in his state. When the Upper Big Branch mine disaster happened, Blankenship sent down a Massey Energy plane to pick up Manchin, who was vacationing in Florida and couldn’t find a commercial flight. At one point during his gubernatorial term, when Manchin and Blankenship were battling over a bond issue, Blankenship said Manchin offered him a seat on a state board in what Blankenship viewed as an attempt to placate him. Blankenship wasn’t interested.
But his disinterest has turned into hatred. “I was tried at the insistence of Joe Manchin,” he says in Triadelphia, and he repeatedly points to Manchin and Obama as the reason he spent a year in federal lockup.
“Does Manchin have blood on his hands?” onscreen text reads during the aforementioned ad comparing Benghazi to Upper Big Branch. “Did Obama tell Manchin to hide the truth?”
Manchin, for his part, has tried to downplay Blankenship’s run for office, treating the entire campaign as an out-of-bounds topic. His campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Blankenship is predictably dismissive of the idea that he represents a threat to the GOP’s chance of beating Manchin—“I think anybody in West Virginia could beat Joe Manchin. You could move here tomorrow and beat Manchin if you could somehow get the nomination,” he says—but Democrats agree with the establishment GOP’s assessment. Blankenship could pull off an improbable primary win, but that will be the end of his run.
“It’s the best thing Joe Manchin could’ve hoped for,” Rahall says, hastening to add: “But I also thought Donald Trump was the best thing Hillary Clinton could’ve hoped for.”