- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2018

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey came out on top of the state’s Republican Senate primary Tuesday night, edging out U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and soundly defeating ex-convict and former coal company CEO Don Blankenship — welcome news for GOP leaders in Washington who actively tried to stop Mr. Blankenship’s momentum during the final days of the campaign.

With roughly 90 percent of the vote in, the Associated Press called the race at 10:19 p.m. Mr. Morrisey had 34.9 percent of the vote compared to 28.9 percent for Mr. Jenkins and 20 percent for Mr. Blankenship.

“Thank you West Virginia. Now it’s on to defeating Joe Manchin in November,” Mr. Morrisey said on Twitter just after the final results came in.

Many Republicans will breathe a sigh of relief after Mr. Morrisey’s win, having fretted that Mr. Blankenship — who spent a year in federal prison in connection with a 2010 mine explosion — would lose a winnable seat in November.

Mr. Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, tried to explain his defeat during a concession speech just after 10 p.m. “I think it’s people not paying attention,” he told supporters.

Unlike Mr. Blankenship, Republican leaders say Mr. Morrisey, who built his political reputation in the state challenging Obama-era regulations, will present a tough matchup for Mr. Manchin.

“I have two words for Senator Joe Manchin: Watch Out. To the West Virginians who feel they no longer have a voice in the United States Senate with Manchin, the wait is over,” Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, chairman of the Republican Attorneys General Association, said in a statement.

The West Virginia contest was the most closely watched of Tuesday’s primaries, and the state is crucial to Republicans’ hopes of keeping and potentially even expanding their majority in the Senate.

The election took on such a high level of importance to Republicans that Mr. Trump weighed in Monday, urging voters to reject Mr. Blankenship and avoid a repeat of last year’s Senate election in Alabama, where highly flawed candidate Roy Moore blew the party’s chances of holding a seat in a solidly conservative state.

“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!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

Republicans’ focus on the race makes sense given the political realities on the ground in West Virginia.

Mr. Manchin, the state’s former governor who easily fended off his own primary challenge from Paula Jean Swearengin on Tuesday, is perhaps the most vulnerable Democrat up for re-election this year. His approval ratings have plummeted in recent months, and he hails from a state that has become one of the reddest in the nation.

Mr. Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in West Virginia in 2016 by more than 40 percentage points.

In a statement Tuesday night, Mr. Manchin pivoted to the general election and pitched himself as a rare voice of sanity in an increasingly bitter and partisan Washington.

“I was asked today why I say ‘Washington sucks.’ It’s because some people in Washington care more about dividing us and playing politics than getting to work and solving these problems,” the senator said. “I’ve always believed you can’t build anything up if you’re tearing each other down. That’s got to change, and this campaign is about bringing people together who care about making life better for Americans who work hard for a paycheck.”

Mr. Trump’s strong standing in the state led Mr. Blankenship, Mr. Morrisey and Mr. Jenkins to cling to the president throughout this primary cycle. Each vowed to be a reliable ally in enacting the Trump agenda if elected.

Mr. Blankenship, appealing to the deeply conservative Republican base in West Virginia, claimed in recent days that he is “Trumpier than Trump.”

The Trumpiness factor was just one element of a race that turned increasingly nasty during its home stretch. Each candidate called his competitors liars, and West Virginia airwaves were inundated for weeks with negative campaign ads.

Mr. Morrisey faced charges of being a carpetbagger — he ran for Congress in New Jersey — and that he helped fuel the state’s opioid crisis because of his previous work as a Washington lobbyist. His campaign has accepted donations from lobbyists and others with direct connections to the pharmaceutical sector, and his rivals even dubbed him “#PainPillPat” on Twitter.

Mr. Jenkins has been labeled a fake conservative by critics who cite his Democratic past. He switched parties in 2013.

Mr. Blankenship was by far the most controversial figure in the race. Beyond the fact that he served a year in prison in connection with the Upper Big Branch mine explosion of 2010 — a conviction he said was the result of an Obama-led witch hunt against the coal industry — he also took increasingly personal shots at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

He dubbed Mr. McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” a reference to a 2014 report that drugs were found aboard a ship owned by the majority leader’s father-in-law. He said Mr. McConnell and his Asian-American wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, were more concerned about creating jobs for “China people” than for Americans. He also called Mr. McConnell the “Swamp Captain” who represents the worst of the political establishment in Washington.

Mr. Manchin, who has tried to walk a fine political line by supporting Mr. Trump on some issues but breaking with him on others, has largely stayed out of the Republican Party primary. He told reporters this week that it will be a tough general election regardless of who the Republican candidate turns out to be.

Surveys have shown Mr. Manchin losing to a generic Republican. Surveys also showed Democrat Doug Jones also losing the general election to a generic Republican during the three-way Alabama GOP primary.

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