- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2018

With less than three weeks until West Virginia’s primary election, national Republican leaders seem to finally recognize that ex-con Don Blankenship has a very real chance to win the Senate contest and represent the party this fall against incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin III — and they are unleashing a last-ditch effort to stop him.

A recently formed PAC with ties to prominent Republican officials is spending about $700,000 on anti-Blankenship ads across the state ahead of the May 8 primary election. The former Massey Energy CEO, who spent a year in federal prison in connection with the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion that killed 29 miners, is within striking distance, polling data show.

It’s increasingly clear that national Republican figures fear Mr. Blankenship could squander the party’s chances of defeating Mr. Manchin in a state that Donald Trump won by a historic margin in the 2016 presidential election.

“Who will clean up Washington? Not convicted criminal Don Blankenship,” the commercial’s narrator says before recounting an episode years ago in which Massey Energy stood accused of contaminating water supplies with coal waste.

“Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?” the Mountain Families PAC ad concludes while showing a picture of Mr. Blankenship.

The former Massey Energy chief quickly fired back by saying the ads represent an effort by Washington “swamp creatures” to maintain the status quo. He also suggested that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, is directly behind the advertising effort.

“Mitch McConnell is likely lying when he says he fears I will not be able to defeat Joe Manchin in the fall. If he is not lying, he certainly has no idea what the political realities are in West Virginia,” Mr. Blankenship said. “McConnell should not be in the U.S. Senate, let alone be the Republican majority leader. He is a swamp captain.”

Mr. Blankenship’s top opponents are West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan H. Jenkins, a Democrat turned Republican.

Recent data show good reason to take the Blankenship bid seriously — something virtually no Republican outside of West Virginia did when he announced his candidacy in December.

Relatively little independent polling has been conducted for the state’s Republican Senate primary, but the most recent survey, commissioned by the Morrisey campaign, put the attorney general at 24 percent and Mr. Blankenship right on his heels at 23 percent. Mr. Jenkins came in third at 17 percent.

In addition to the advertising blitz, a flurry of endorsements from top Republicans and conservative groups has gone to Mr. Blankenship’s leading opponent, Mr. Morrisey.

Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, and the Tea Party Patriots Citizens Fund endorsed Mr. Morrisey this week, shortly after the anti-Blankenship ads hit the airwaves in West Virginia.

“With so many politicians in Washington stuck in the swamp, we could use a senator with Patrick’s principled integrity in the U.S. Senate,” Mr. Paul said in his endorsement.

Republican leaders’ opposition to Mr. Blankenship seems to be based more in fear that an ex-con candidate could embarrass the party — similar in some ways to the debacle of failed Senate hopeful Roy Moore in Alabama — than concern about his political prospects against Mr. Manchin in November.

Publicly available data suggest that Mr. Manchin would cruise to victory against either Mr. Jenkins or Mr. Morrisey.

Zogby Analytics surveys released last fall showed Mr. Manchin beating Mr. Morrisey by 7 percentage points and Mr. Jenkins by 13 points. No firm public results have been released for a Manchin versus Blankenship matchup.

On the other hand, a Survey Monkey/Axios poll released about six weeks ago shows Mr. Manchin losing to a “generic Republican” by 9 percentage points.

Mr. Blankenship argues that those figures prove he is capable of winning the general election and would energize conservative voters far more than either of his opponents. He also argued that likening him to Mr. Moore is an absurd comparison.

“This is nonsense. Roy Moore’s accusers were women and teenage girls. My accusers are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton,” he said.

Mr. Blankenship maintains that federal regulators were responsible for the Upper Big Branch explosion and that the Obama administration prosecuted and imprisoned him as part of a much broader strategy to demonize the American coal industry.

The Mountain Families PAC treasurer, Benjamin Ottenhoff, is a former chief financial officer of the Republican National Committee. The company that produced the anti-Blankenship spots, Washington-based McCarthy Hennings Whalen Inc., created advertisements for Mr. McConnell’s re-election campaign and for other major Republican candidates.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide