MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — With former President Barack Obama long gone from power and Republicans in full control of Congress, West Virginia’s Don Blankenship has picked a new face to represent the unpopular Washington political establishment: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
The former CEO of Massey Energy, who spent a year in federal prison in connection with the Upper Big Branch mine explosion of 2010, has unleashed a blistering wave of criticism against Mr. McConnell, Kentucky Republican, in his campaign to win next week’s Senate primary.
As voters prepare to head to the polls, it’s Mr. McConnell, not Mr. Blankenship’s Republican opponents, who is taking the brunt of attacks from the campaign.
“Sen. McConnell is not only a swamper — he is the swamp captain. His conflicted and anti-American positions are helping to bankrupt our country,” Mr. Blankenship said in a recent statement.
He accused Mr. McConnell and others of a cover-up of the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster.
“Sen. McConnell may also be assisting the swamp in the cover-up of the government’s killing of 29 coal miners. The facts surrounding the death of the miners clearly show a cover-up,” he said. “Lies, conflicts of interest and corruption have reached a new pinnacle. There is seemingly no limit to what our Congress will do to maintain the swamp. My run for the U.S. Senate offers voters an opportunity to begin draining the swamp. This is why McConnell and the establishment are spending millions to defeat me.”
Mr. Blankenship is facing off in the primary against West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Rep. Evan H. Jenkins and three other Republicans.
The winner will go on to challenge Sen. Joe Manchin III, who is widely viewed as one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats in the November elections.
Mr. Blankenship, Mr. Morrisey and Mr. Jenkins will face off in a Fox News primary debate here Tuesday night.
Although the national Republican Party hasn’t officially taken a side in the West Virginia primary, it is become increasingly clear that powerful party figures want Mr. Blankenship to lose. PACs with direct ties to national party organizations have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV ads in recent weeks attacking Mr. Blankenship.
The commercials are designed to head off a situation in which Mr. Blankenship wins the primary but then blows Republicans’ opportunity to knock off Mr. Manchin, whose approval ratings have dropped in recent months and who represents a state that Mr. Trump carried by more than 40 percentage points in the 2016 presidential contest.
Prominent party officials say privately that they believe Mr. Blankenship is lashing out against Mr. McConnell because he is fading in the polls and has begun to realize that he is likely headed for a defeat next week.
Indeed, a recent Fox News Republican primary poll showed that Mr. Jenkins has the support of 25 percent of West Virginia voters, compared with 21 percent for Mr. Morrisey and 16 percent for Mr. Blankenship. Nearly a quarter of voters, however, said they remain undecided.
Mr. Blankenship was found guilty of conspiring to willfully violate mandatory mine safety and health standards in connection with the deadly explosion, but he maintains that government regulators were to blame. He also has said that an Obama administration conspiracy was responsible for his imprisonment.
Meanwhile, Mr. Morrisey and Mr. Jenkins in recent days have largely ignored Mr. Blankenship and have turned nearly all of their fire on each other.
Mr. Morrisey has hammered Mr. Jenkins over his history as a Democrat; the congressman switched parties in 2013.
“Who are you going to trust to advance conservative policies and work with @realDonaldTrump. Not liberal @EvanJenkinsWV, who is part of the progressive mainstream,” Mr. Morrisey tweeted over the weekend.
Mr. Jenkins has tried to head off that criticism by tying himself as closely as possible to the president.
“I proudly endorsed Donald Trump and am working with President Trump each and every day,” he said at a primary debate last week. “What a difference an election makes. … We’re starting to head in the right direction.”
In addition to the claim linking Mr. McConnell to a cover-up of the explosion, Mr. Blankenship has come under fire for saying the Senate majority leader has deep conflicts of interest in foreign policy because his father-in-law is a “wealthy China person.”
Mr. McConnell is married to Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, the first American woman of Asian descent to serve in a president’s Cabinet.
“McConnell and his wife have enriched themselves by peddling influence and access,” Mr. Blankenship said.
The Senate majority leader’s office declined to comment for this article, but Mr. McConnell shot back last week while speaking to Fox News.
“My father-in-law is an American who lives in New York,” he said. “I don’t have any comment about ridiculous observations like that.”
Mr. McConnell’s former chief of staff, Josh Holmes, went further.
“This candidate is as contemptible a human being as you will find,” he tweeted last week about Mr. Blankenship.