President Donald Trump’s trip to West Virginia Thursday to talk about tax cuts is technically an official event. But it is also being seen as a way for the White House to play favorites in the state’s cut-throat Republican Senate primary.
The president will be flanked by two mainstream Republicans, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who are competing in the May 8 primary for the right to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. Jenkins and Morrisey will sit on opposite sides of the president, according to those familiar with the planning.
The two will be closer to the president than the state’s two most senior elected Republicans, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Gov. Jim Justice, who will be at separate tables. The event has been in the works for several weeks.
The seating arrangement is being seen by senior Republicans as a subtle dig at a third Republican vying for the Republican nomination, coal baron Don Blankenship. Blankenship was imprisoned for a year following a blast at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers — Thursday is the 8-year anniversary of the tragedy — yet he has been steadily climbing in the contest. Blankenship has been saturating the state’s airwaves with TV ads castigating Jenkins and Morrisey as pawns of the establishment and portraying himself as a victim of an Obama Justice Department bent on locking him up.
Senior Republicans are deeply concerned about Blankenship’s rise and have been deliberating whether to intervene to stop him in the contest. They view him as damaged goods and worry it would cede a winnable seat if he wins.
The national GOP has yet to take action against Blankenship. Some senior Republicans worry that ambushing him with TV ads could backfire. They liken the situation to last year’s Alabama Senate contest, when the party launched an unsuccessful campaign to stop former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore from winning the nomination.
Yet Thursday’s tax event is being seen by some as a subtle way for the party to take sides.
The White House declined to comment. A spokesperson for Blankenship did not respond to a request for comment, nor did representatives for Jenkins and Morrisey.
The White House has used an official event to signal its political preferences before. In December, Trump flew to Salt Lake City to appear at a ceremonial event with Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch as part of an ultimately unsuccessful campaign to persuade him to run for reelection.