Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana and West Virginia will all hold their midterm election primaries on Tuesday, but the nation's attention is laser-focused on the Mountain State and coal baron ex-con Don Blankenship. The Senate candidate from West Virginia became a national punchline last week, when, in the latest of his several bizarre campaign ads, he reeled off a number of racially insensitive remarks while dubbing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell "Cocaine Mitch," an apparent reference to a report that drugs were found on a shipping vessel owned by his wife's family.
But Republicans aren't laughing. Politico reported over the weekend that Blankenship may have a narrow lead over his primary opponents Rep. Evan Jenkins and current West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and the GOP fears that if the controversial if not downright objectionable Blankenship were to secure the nomination, he would almost certainly lose in November to Democrat incumbent Joe Manchin.
As part of his Monday morning tweeting routine, President Trump fired off a warning to prospective voters.
To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference. Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State...No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 7, 2018
The president’s tweet comes as a breath of fresh air to Republicans who have all but contracted black lung trying to convince the state’s voters to steer clear of Blankenship.
After the "Cocaine Mitch" ad was released, Morrisey sent out a robocall detailing why voters should avoid the former coal executive, and on Sunday he held a news conference in which he said he's ready to snitch on Blankenship for potential campaign violations.
"My campaign will be informing his probation officer in Nevada about this issue right away, to determine if this refusal to comply with federal law violates the terms of his supervised release," Morrisey said, referencing Blankenship's Nevada residency, which opponents have attempted to use against him. "West Virginians don’t need a candidate who may not even be able to campaign in the state against Joe Manchin."
Morrisey's attacks follow the creation of Mountain Families PAC, an establishment-affiliated group that in April began running anti-Blankenship ads in West Virginia. The super PAC's connection to Mitch McConnell is what appears to have spurred Blankenship's attack on the Senate Majority Leader and the heritage of his wife, Elaine Chao, Trump's Secretary of Transportation. In the now-notorious ad, Blankenship says on top of folksy guitar picking that "swamp captain" McConnell's "China family has given him tens of millions of dollars," and that McConnell has "gotten rich" creating "millions of jobs for China people."
What in the world did I just watch pic.twitter.com/4eudpGAxp0— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) May 3, 2018
When pressed about the ad's racially insensitive tone, Blankenship was unfazed. "We’re confused on our staff as to how it can be racist when there’s no mention of a race," he said, according to Roll Call. "There’s no race. Races are Negro, white Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian. There’s no mention of a race. I’ve never used a race word."
Despite his comments about Chao's family, Blankenship has in the past expressed a desire to gain Chinese citizenship, a strange quirk seized upon by the McConnell-aligned group. "There is only one candidate in this race – maybe in the history of candidates running for U.S. Senate, who has ever entertained the idea becoming Chinese. His name is ex-convict Don Blankenship," Chris Pack, a Mountain Families PAC spokesman, said in a statement.
Given his history, it’s pretty remarkable Blankenship has even been able stay competitive in the race. The former Massey Energy CEO spent a year in prison after being found guilty of conspiring to violate safety standards when an explosion at one of his mines killed 29 coal workers in 2010. While he was in charge of Massey, the company polluted West Virginia's waterways, and even forced an elementary school to relocate because of airborne coal dust and a nearby "sludge dam."
Blankenship is deflecting blame, reportedly saying Monday morning that it is as "obvious as can be that the Upper Big Branch explosion was caused by the government." He’s also made a habit of pinning his unsavory reputation on Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Last week, he tweeted that he is “a victim of fake news and a corrupt Obama DOJ” in response to criticism from Donald Trump Jr.
I am sorry that you were misinformed and misled by McConnell’s cronies while you were at the RNC meeting yesterday in Miami.— Don Blankenship (@DonBlankenship) May 4, 2018
I have never been convicted of a felony and never been convicted of a misdemeanor that I committed.
Just like your father...(1/2)
., I am a victim of fake news and a corrupt Obama DOJ.— Don Blankenship (@DonBlankenship) May 4, 2018
When I get to DC, your dad will have no better supporter in his efforts to drain the swamp. Looking forward to working together to Make America Great Again. You will like the real Don Blankenship, just like WV voters.
Blankenship responded to President Trump’s non-endorsement on Monday by issuing a release claiming he is "Trumpier than Trump and this morning proves it."
Despite the connection to the death of 29 coal miners, the Nevada residency, and his quest for Chinese citizenship, there are a few things Blankenship has working in his favor.
For one, he’s a counterpuncher, and if we learned anything about Republican voters in 2016, it’s that they love candidates who fight back.
Secondly, as Alex Burns of the New York Times pointed out on Twitter, the strategy of diverting votes from one candidate to either of two other choices – just as Trump spelled it out in his tweet – could be disastrous.
This is the R problem in this race in a nutshell. “Don’t vote Blankenship, but choose between two other options” is why Blankenship could win with a plurality. https://t.co/tNgxnRST2k— Alex Burns (@alexburnsNYT) May 7, 2018
There’s also the fact that Blankenship is the most recognizable name on the ballot. He also has the establishment freaking out while trying to convince voters he has no chance to beat the Democrat. His opponents are providing reasons not to vote for him rather than reasons to vote for themselves. He's clearly not afraid to speak his mind. He doesn't apologize for past indiscretions. He's rallied against political correctness. He's even sprinkled in a little racism. This should sound familiar by now.
Regardless of whether Blankenship wins the nomination on Tuesday, he could still prove to be a thorn in the side of establishment Republicans come November. On Sunday, CBS News reported that he would consider running as a third party if he were to lose to Jenkins or Morrisey, which, too, would hamstring the party's hopes of taking down Manchin.
The Democrat has yet to comment on the recent developments regarding his potential opponent, probably because he's holed up in his office cackling.