National News

Don Blankenship Loses West Virginia Republican Primary for Senate

Posted May 8, 2018 10:47 p.m. EDT

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Don Blankenship, a former coal baron who went to prison for his role in a deadly mine disaster, was soundly defeated in the West Virginia Republican Senate primary Tuesday after President Donald Trump and other Republicans urged voters to reject him.

The state’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, captured the party’s nomination and is expected to mount an aggressive challenge this fall against Sen. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat who is a top target of Republicans in their struggle to hang on to their one-seat Senate majority in the midterm elections in November.

Blankenship, who called himself “Trumpier than Trump,” drew on elements of the president’s own populist playbook, including nativist attacks and charges of conspiracy leveled at the Obama-era Justice Department that prosecuted him for his role in the 2010 mine explosion, which killed 29 men.

But Washington Republican leaders badly wanted Blankenship to lose, with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, coordinating an effort to derail him. At McConnell’s urging, Trump on Monday warned “the great people of West Virginia” in a tweet that Blankenship could not win the general election against Manchin.

Blankenship said Tuesday night that he thought the tweet cost him 10 percentage points or more.

Blankenship ran a non-politician’s race from start to finish. His TV ads were on the air months before those of other candidates, and rather than emphasize his conservative bona fides — the chief driver of voters in a Republican primary — he spent deeply from his fortune to attack the Justice Department for his conviction.

Unpredictable to the end, Blankenship went shopping for a new suit in Charleston on Tuesday rather than campaign. Hours later, at his election night event at a modest-sized corporate ballroom in a Marriott Hotel, he took the stage after only about 35 percent of votes were in to deliver a sort-of concession speech in a matter-of-fact tone.

There were more journalists than supporters in the room, including two Mandarin speakers from the Voice of America, who said they were broadcasting into China because of interest there over racially offensive comments by Blankenship.

“The news so far is not very good,” he told the audience. “We’re really disappointed by some of the votes in the northern panhandle,” he continued. “At this point it’s not nearly what I hoped it would be.”

Then Blankenship asked whether anyone had questions, and fielded them from both supporters and reporters. He said he may not endorse Morrisey, repeating campaign attacks that the attorney general is not strongly enough opposed to abortion or opioids. And he was inconclusive about whether he would mount a third-party bid, as he had earlier floated.

By 9:30 p.m., the hotel caterers cleared away the last of the West Virginia apple butter glazed chicken sate and shrimp skewers.

Many in West Virginia speculated that Blankenship, 68, was running primarily to seek personal redemption, or was waging a vendetta against Manchin. (The retired coal executive denied those were his motives.)

In any case, Blankenship dug deeply into his personal fortune for some $2 million on TV and digital ads, far more than his rivals, which early on touched a nerve with the state’s anti-establishment voters, including in the southern coal fields. Some miners and miners’ families echoed Blankenship’s charges that he had been railroaded.

In the final stretch, Blankenship turned his fire on McConnell, R-Ky., calling him “Cocaine Mitch” for an obscure claim that a ship connected to McConnell’s father-in-law was found with smuggled drugs. In an ad released last week, he claimed “Swamp Captain Mitch McConnell has given millions of jobs to China People,” an allusion to the shipping business run by the father of McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, Trump’s secretary of transportation.

Blankenship’s animus toward McConnell flared after a super PAC with ties to the majority leader ran ads in West Virginia calling the former coal executive unelectable and “a convicted criminal.”

McConnell’s allies delighted in the rebuke Tuesday night. “It turns out that Blankenship’s racist dog-whistle played a lot louder with Washington reporters than with West Virginia primary voters,” said Steven Law, who runs the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned super PAC.

Trump’s warning to West Virginia Republicans and independents to ignore Blankenship because he would be a weak candidate in November seemed to give little pause to those who voted for him.

“I don’t think it’s true,” said Chris Wilder, 32, who provides services to coal mines in Madison. “It kind of threw it for a loop there,” he acknowledged with a chuckle.

National Republicans believed that Blankenship would have cost them a winnable Senate seat just as in Alabama last year, when primary voters chose Roy S. Moore, who was accused by several women of making sexual advances toward them as teenagers. In a deeply red state, Moore lost the general election to Doug Jones, a Democrat. After more than $1 million in TV attack ads by the McConnell-aligned super PAC last month, polls showed Blankenship slipping behind two conventional rivals, Morrisey and Jenkins. But he surged after a Fox News debate on May 1 — indicative of national interest in the race — in which Jenkins and Morrisey mainly attacked one another.

Over the weekend, Morrisey finally leveled his sights on Blankenship, calling him a convicted criminal and on Monday sending a letter to his Nevada probation officer, accusing Blankenship of breaking the law by not filing a financial disclosure.

Blankenship, raised in poverty in Mingo County, West Virginia, now lives principally outside Las Vegas, in a $2.4 million villa, where he is under supervised release from his prison sentence. He failed to file a personal financial disclosure with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, as required. Blankenship told The New York Times last month that he felt no pressure to file the disclosure because there isn’t “much of a penalty.”

Morrisey is a conservative battler who sued the Obama administration repeatedly over environmental regulation. But he will also surely face sharp Democratic attacks: He is a transplant from New Jersey who once worked as a Washington lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry, running in a state ravaged by the opioid epidemic.

Manchin, 70, who is one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, has managed to retain popularity at home as Democrats elected statewide in West Virginia have become all but extinct. He won his most recent election, in 2012, in a near landslide with 60 percent of the vote even as the Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, carried every county.

In Congress, Manchin opposed President Barack Obama’s climate change proposals and worked with Republicans on abortion and gun ownership. But he has refused repeated efforts to get him to switch parties, saying that when he grew up Republicans were the party of the rich, and he did not know any rich people.