Political News

Don Blankenship is running on Trumpism in West Virginia. The GOP is worried it will work.

Posted May 6, 2018 7:41 p.m. EDT

— The similarities between President Donald Trump and ex-con coal baron-turned-West Virginia Senate candidate Don Blankenship are impossible to miss.

Both are businessman-turned-politicians whose names are synonymous with their industries. Both tapped into raw nativism during their respective runs. And both have used conspiracy theories to dismiss glaring issues with their candidacies.

But now that Blankenship is within striking distance of upsetting the two candidates Washington Republicans would rather see run against vulnerable Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November, Trump-world and establishment Republicans have joined forces to upend a candidate whose upstart run looks like a clone of Trump's successful bid just two years ago.

"Our polls are close," West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, another candidate for the Senate nomination, told a small audience here on Sunday evening. "They are showing that Blankenship and I are tied."

That is a big admission from the candidate. The only public poll in the race released in late April showed Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins leading Blankenship. But after Morrisey and Jenkins spent the entirety of a Fox News debate last week attacking each other, a strategy that gave Blankenship a largely free pass, the coal baron is said to be surging.

Standing in the backroom of an empty restaurant, Morrisey struck a dire tone with the dozen or so supporters who came out to see him: "This race has changed a lot. We have to say no to Blankenship."

That sense has been felt for weeks, not only in West Virginia but back in Washington, DC, where top Republicans have worried Blankenship could win Tuesday's primary. National Republicans have compared the race to last year's Alabama Senate contest where Republican Roy Moore unexpectedly won the primary but then lost to Democrat Doug Jones in the general. A super PAC linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has invested heavily in stopping Blankenship, spending over $1.3 million on a mix of television and digital ads ahead of Tuesday's primary.

But that concern grew graver after the Fox News debate, leading a handful of state and national operatives to believe Blankenship has a real shot of beating Morrisey and Jenkins on Tuesday.

With that surge, Blankenship - the former CEO of Massey Energy who until recently was serving a yearlong sentence for a misdemeanor conviction over his involvement in the deadliest US mine explosion in four decades - has found himself in the spotlight and the subject of considerable attacks.

Donald Trump, Jr., the President's oldest son, has urged voters to reject him on Tuesday, while Morrisey has called the coal baron a "convicted criminal" as much as possible over the last three days.

Morrisey also released a 30-second robo call on Saturday that slammed Blankenship and accused him of flouting ethics rules at a press conference on Sunday.

In an interview with CNN, Morrisey said the contest had "shifted to a two-person race" with Blankenship and admitted that he underestimated the candidate's power earlier in the race.

"I thought West Virginians would see through his campaign," Morrissey admitted, arguing he is running a "misleading campaign." "Don Blankenship is running out of vengeance and personal redemption. That is not a very attractive thing. But when you can do a lot of ads over a long period of time, you may be able to convince people that your motivations are a little bit difference. His motivations are not pure."

Blankenship's team is relishing the attention, seeing it as validation that their candidate - who they believe is a Republican in Trump's image - is surging.

"Trump and Don are two guys who have similar experiences and similar backgrounds and similar thoughts and similar ideas on where the country should be headed," said Greg Thomas, Blankenship's top aide. "The President hasn't been involved in this race, but we are looking forward to him endorsing us after we win the primary."

Blankenship has argued for months that he is "Trumpier than Trump." And the similarities are unmistakable.

Trump, seeking to tap into nativist sentiment across the country, kicked off his 2016 campaign with harsh rhetoric on Mexican immigrations to the United States, labeling undocumented immigrants as "rapists" who are "bringing drugs" and "bringing crime."

Blankenship has used a similar tactic, using the Chinese heritage of Mitch McConnell's in-laws to slam the powerful Republican Majority Leader.

"Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people," Blankenship says in a recent ad, a direct-to-camera 30-second spot that defines the coal baron's attacks on the Majority Leader.

Like Trump, Blankenship has also taken to labeling his political enemies, calling McConnell "Cocaine Mitch" in a recent ad.

Trump's run was also defined by a host of conspiracy theories, from raising false questions about Ted Cruz's father being tied to President John F. Kennedy's death to repeatedly questioning President Barack Obama's birth certificate to besmirching Muslims by suggesting they were cheering in New Jersey on September 11.

Blankenship has used a parallel strategy, suggesting that his recent conviction in the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine was ordered by Obama.

"It's a badge of honor in West Virginia to be put in jail for a misdemeanor by Obama," he has said during his run. He has even run ads blaming Obama, Manchin and others for the mine disaster.

And on Sunday, Blankenship said he couldn't rule out running as a third party, should he lose the Republican nomination fight.

"I have not ruled out anything," Blankenship told CBS News.

Trump did the same during his 2016 presidential run.

The strategy of turning himself into Trump has impressed even some national Republicans skeptical of his bid.

"The way he has been running ads and blaming Obama, there are a large chunk of people in West Virginia that would listen to that message and say it sounds very Trump," said a senior Republican official in Washington, noting that Trump won the state with a whopping 68% of the vote in November. "If you are someone that will stand with Trump, that is honestly more important."

But the President's son does not share that sentiment and unleashed a series of tweets on Thursday urging West Virginia Republicans to vote against Blankenship.

"I hate to lose. So I'm gonna go out on a limb here and ask the people of West Virginia to make a wise decision and reject Blankenship! No more fumbles like Alabama," he wrote on Thursday, comparing the coal baron to failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. "We need to win in November."

The statement shocked an entirely caught off guard Blankenship team and crystalized the Republican opposition against them.

But in yet another Trump-esque move, Blankenship turned into the attack by comparing himself to the President in a direct response to Trump Jr: "Just like your father," he wrote, "I am a victim of fake news and a corrupt Obama DOJ."

The messy primary has also helped Blankenship, with voters telling Morrisey on Sunday that they have hated the negativity and fighting.

Democrats have fed some of that feeling and enjoyed the show. A super PAC linked to Democrats has been running ads in West Virginia attacking Jenkins and Morrisey for weeks. The super PAC - Duty & Country PAC - has spent $142,000 this week in a mix of web and TV ads attacking Jenkin and has spent close to $1.5 million in the race so far.

"They are in the middle of a bloodbath right now," said a gleeful West Virginia Democrat with ties to Manchin. "And it's all good for us."