The Republican establishment has launched an emergency intervention in the West Virginia Senate primary aimed at stopping recently imprisoned coal baron Don Blankenship from winning the party’s nomination.
Late last week, a newly-formed super PAC generically dubbed the “Mountain Families PAC” began airing TV ads targeting Blankenship, who spent one year behind bars following a deadly 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine. The national party isn’t promoting its role in the group but its fingerprints are all over it.
The 30-second commercials, which the group is spending nearly $700,000 to air, accuse Blankenship’s company of contaminating drinking water by pumping “toxic coal slurry,” even as the multimillionaire installed a piping system that pumped clean water to his mansion.
“Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?” the narrator intones.
The assault comes amid rising fears from national Republicans that Blankenship is gaining traction ahead of the May 8 primary. The Republican hopeful has spent his own money to fund a $1.3 million TV ad blitz in which he portrays himself as the casualty of an Obama-era Justice Department bent on locking him up. He has far outspent his primary opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whom he castigates as pawns of the GOP establishment.
Washington Republicans have spent weeks deliberating whether to go after Blankenship, who was released from prison in May after a one-year sentence. They’re worried that he would destroy the party’s chances of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November.
At the same time they’ve concerned that attacking him would allow Blankenship to portray himself in the race as the embattled adversary of powerful D.C. interests. The scenario is similar to the one that played out in last year’s Alabama Senate race, when the party spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to stop former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore from winning the GOP nomination.
The national party, perhaps worried about Alabama-style backlash, is not taking credit for the attack or for Mountain Families PAC. But the connections are conspicuous.
According to federal disclosures, the commercials were overseen by several firms that in the past have worked closely with Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that openly led the assault on Moore. They were produced by GOP ad making firm McCarthy, Hennings, Whalen and were placed on TV by the media buyer Main Street Group, both of whom were paid thousands of dollars by Senate Leadership Fund during the 2016 election cycle.
Mountain Families PAC has also paid nearly $48,000 to Targeted Victory, a suburban Washington-based GOP consulting firm, for web ads targeting Blankenship. During the 2016 cycle, the firm received over $1.5 million from Senate Leadership Fund, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Representatives for Senate Leadership Fund did not respond to requests for comment, or to inquiries about whether it had a role in orchestrating the attack.
The ties between Mountain Families PAC and the national party do not end there. The super PAC lists an Arlington, Virginia P.O. Box that’s previously been used by a number of GOP entities. Among them: a fundraising account benefiting former Republican Sen. Luther Strange, who was the party favorite in last year’s Alabama contest.
The treasurer for Mountain Families PAC, Benjamin Ottenhoff, did not respond to a request for comment. Ottenhoff has previously worked for several party organizations, including the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The ads represent the GOP’s most aggressive action yet against Blankenship. Earlier this month, President Donald Trump flew to West Virginia to hold an ostensibly official event to tout his tax reform package. He was flanked by Jenkins and Morrisey – a clear attempt to promote their candidacies. Blankenship was not there.
Blankenship did not respond to a request for comment. But last month he issued a statement saying he was well aware of the possibility that party leadership could target him.
“There has been an awful lot of talk lately about who the Washington, D.C. establishment and Mitch McConnell, in particular, are supporting in West Virginia’s U.S. Senate race. Let me be clear, I don't care who they are supporting,” he said. “I know that it is not me, because we recognize that those defending the swamp do not want Republican senators who want to drain the swamp.”