Senate Republicans are escalating their attacks on West Virginia Senate GOP candidate Don Blankenship, increasingly worried that the coal baron and ex-prisoner will blow a winnable race against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
Republicans see West Virginia as a prime pickup opportunity in November, given President Donald Trump’s huge popularity there. But they say the multimillionaire Blankenship, running in a tight three-way primary against Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.) and state attorney general Patrick Morrisey, is indefensible as a candidate after serving a year in prison for conspiring to violate mine safety violations. Twenty-nine miners died at his company’s Upper Big Branch mine in 2010.
“Wasn’t he convicted of a crime?” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in an interview Tuesday. “That sort of background doesn’t lend itself to public office, in my view. Being convicted of a crime is a real liability.”
As the race gets closer, alarm bells are going off in Senate leadership suites. At a Monday evening Senate Republican leadership meeting, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) focused on Blankenship’s weakness, explaining to other Republicans that the former coal magnate would be difficult for the party to defend in the state, according to attendees.
He specifically referenced accusations that Blankenship’s companies contaminated drinking water. A case involving the issue was settled with West Virginia residents, though Massey Energy, which Blankenship led, admitted no wrongdoing.
“That’s not popular in West Virginia,” Gardner told leaders gathered in McConnell’s office, referring to the contamination claims.
The situation between Blankenship and national Republicans is growing more fraught by the day. Last week a super PAC apparently controlled by national interests blasted Blankenship for allegedly contaminating the state’s drinking water at the same time he built a private water supply for his home. Blankenship hit back Monday in a scathing statement likening Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell to the Russians, interfering in an election outside his jurisdiction.
Cornyn and other top Republican senators continued the tit-for-tat this week. And the famously strategic McConnell wryly claimed he doesn’t “pay a lot of attention to these primaries,” before throwing a jab at Blankenship.
“We’ll wait to see who the nominee is and get behind a Republican candidate. And hopefully it will be one who is actually electable,” McConnell said Tuesday, which he later called a “subtle hint” about his preference in the primary.
Meanwhile, Jenkins and Morrisey are beating each other up ahead of the May 8 primary. Morrisey released an ad on Tuesday attacking Jenkins’ “liberal Democrat record,” while Jenkins has focused on Morrisey receiving campaign money from the pharmaceutical industry, an attack that resonates in a state wracked by opioid addiction.
Officially, Senate Republicans aren’t intervening in the race out of fear it would aid Blankenship's bid to portray himself as an outsider taking on the corrupt establishment. But privately, Blankenship is a hot topic among GOP leaders.
“It’s kind of wild out there. I don’t think he will [win]. I certainly hope one of the other candidates does because I think he would be obviously a challenged candidate going into the fall,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 GOP leader.
On Monday, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), a McConnell ally, met with a small group of donors in New York City. She described the primary as extremely close between Blankenship, Jenkins, and Morrisey. And, according to one person who was present, she said that Republicans were concerned that should Blankenship win the nomination, Manchin would walk over him in a general election.
In an interview on Tuesday, Capito said she would not endorse in the primary and said “it’s really hard to predict” who will win. Limited public polling in the race has indicated that all three candidates are in contention and there is no favorite.
“It’s tightening up by all indications. And I think that’s going to heighten the interest of a lot of Republican and independent voters in the state and I think that’s a good thing,” Capito said.
It’s no surprise GOP senators are searching for a silver lining, because they find themselves in a nearly impossible position in the West Virginia race.
During last year’s Alabama Senate race, the national party — led by the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC — spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to stop former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore from winning the nomination. The barrage failed, with Moore portraying himself as a victim of a GOP establishment bent on taking him down — a message that resonated with the state’s conservative voters.
Moore beat former Sen. Luther Strange (R-Ala.) and then lost to Democrat Doug Jones, shaving a seat off the Senate GOP’s already thin majority. Thune admitted that the GOP getting directly involved in West Virginia would “probably” similarly help Blankenship.
“I still think in the end people are discerning enough that they’ll figure this out. Obviously we’ll want to have a good candidate out there that will run a good race in the fall,” he said.
Instead, Republican leaders are taking a more guarded approach. They have refused to take credit for the recently-launched, anti-Blankenship ad launched by the so-called “Mountain Families PAC.” Yet their fingerprints are all over the generically-titled group, which has enlisted a team of veteran Republican strategists who have worked closely with Senate Leadership Fund in the past. The super PAC’s ad-making firm, McCarthy Hennings Whalen, has also done work for McConnell.
Trump appeared at an event in West Virginia this month and sat next to Jenkins and Morrisey. Blankenship did not attend. Senate Republicans privately said they hope Trump will attack Blankenship if upcoming polls show he could win.
Blankenship, meanwhile, is taking a page out of the Moore playbook. In a scathing statement Monday, he derided McConnell as the “Swamp captain” of D.C., said he was wrongly accused in the mine explosion and compared McConnell to a Russian interloper.
“West Virginians are aware that McConnell cannot vote in their election,” Blankenship said. “They want him to mind his own business and do his job."