BLUEFIELD, W.Va. — From the outside, it’s easy to dismiss the candidacy of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.
The low-budget ads. The racist comments. The fact that he served a year in prison in connection with a deadly mine explosion and is still on probation.
All would seem to discount the man running for the Republican Senate nomination in West Virginia against the state’s attorney general and a sitting congressman.
And now, less than 24 hours before the primary, President Donald Trump has taken to Twitter to tell the people of West Virginia — who backed him by a 42-point margin in 2016 — that Blankenship would be unelectable in November.
That comes after an onslaught of spending against Blankenship from an outside group with ties to national GOP strategists called Mountain Families PAC. National Republicans have long feared that a Blankenship nomination would imperil the party’s chances of unseating Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin III this year.
And until recently, the limited polling of this race that has been released suggested the attacks were working: Blankenship had faded behind Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins, albeit with 20 percent to 40 percent undecided through April.
So how is it that on the eve of Tuesday’s primary, Republicans are seriously talking about the possibility that Blankenship could win the nomination?
Watch: 5 Things to Watch in Tuesday’s Congressional Primaries
The Trump candidate
Morrisey and Jenkins have tripped over themselves trying to claim loyalty to Trump. But Blankenship encapsulates Trump’s style without even trying.
“I am Trumpier than Trump and this morning proves it,” Blankenship said Monday in response to Trump’s tweet.
Holding a “town hall meeting” at Macado’s restaurant last week — the kind of place where Bud Lights go for $1 on Thursdays — Blankenship stood, surrounded by miniature carousel horses on the restaurant’s second floor, and took questions from a mostly sympathetic crowd.
He was upfront about his wealth and his imprisonment, joking about how he “didn’t make much money” last year and was “a little tied up.”
Like Trump, Blankenship’s brand of populism doesn’t involve pretending to be a man of the people. A constant refrain is that he’s donated more to charity than most people have made in a lifetime.
He laughs about how his opponents have showed the wrong mansion when attacking him — “I’ve got two of ’em but that’s not it” — or have attacked him for having an airplane.
“I would sometimes eat breakfast, lunch and dinner in three different countries trying to sell enough coal to keep 7,000 coal miners working,” he told the crowd. “You can’t drive across the Pacific,” he added to chuckles in the room.
A man in the crowed yelled out: “I never got a paycheck from a poor man, so don’t be ashamed of your wealth.”
For some of his supporters, Blankenship has been a job creator.
He spins the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch coal mine that killed 29 workers and his subsequent conviction for conspiring to violate mine safety standards as the fault of big government even suggesting that the judges who decided against him were on drugs.
“It’s funny: A lot of people act like I’m Goliath, and the government’s David. I can’t figure that out; I think they got it backwards,” Blankenship said.
He’s featured Gwen Thomas, the sister of one of the miners killed in Upper Big Branch, in his advertising, and his campaign directs reporters to her to talk about the explosion.
Plenty of miners can’t stand Blankenship. But to Thomas, and some miners who back him, the government’s conclusion that safety violations led to the deadly explosion was also an indictment of the miners.
“These men have cried because they were made to feel they killed my brother,” Thomas said at Macado’s last week.
Blankenship is largely self-funding his campaign, and he likes to act as if it’s a homegrown operation. (“We don’t have solid, scientific polling,” he said last week, pointing to Facebook “likes” as an indication that he was beating his opponents.)
He does, in fact, have polling. He’s working with Republican pollster Mark Blankenship (no relation), who’s based in Charleston. The candidate’s ties to some of the West Virginia GOP political class run deep, stemming from his funding of early efforts to build the party in a historically Democratic state.
Blankenship’s team maintains that its polling showed him gaining the lead after last week’s Fox News debate, although they haven’t released details. Campaign manager Greg Thomas thinks they’ve seen “a bit of a Trump effect” with supporters not wanting to admit to pollsters they were supporting Blankenship.
Morrisey turned his fire on Blankenship this weekend, admitting that the former convict had gained in his campaign’s internal polling. He released a last-minute digital ad against him Monday.
Several national strategists involved in the race also confirmed Blankenship’s support had picked up heading into the weekend.
But only Tuesday will tell what impact Trump’s tweet will have, if any, especially with more than 50,000 early votes already cast as of Friday.
There’s little precedent for a competitive statewide Republican primary in a state that’s only recently shifted to full GOP control.
“With all the outside money that’s come in, it’s anybody’s race,” said a West Virginia consultant who’s not working with any of the GOP candidates.
Jenkins has hammered Morrisey, who in turn has a super PAC that’s spent against Jenkins. And just as national Republicans have meddled in this primary to try to damage Blankenship, national Democrats have been attacking Jenkins and Morrisey.
Jenkins has been on the receiving end of a disproportionate amount of the spending from Duty and Country PAC.
“You would expect any of the six candidates running to say they’re the best to take on Joe [Manchin], but a real tell-tale sign is who do the Democrats fear most,” Jenkins said last week after touring a tool factory in Wheeling.
The attacks against Jenkins and Morrisey, from various camps, allowed Blankenship to climb up the middle from third place, said a national GOP strategist involved in the race. Last week’s Fox News debate helped, and the self-funder had the financial resources to capitalize on the late opening.
Onstage at the debate in Morgantown, Morrisey and Jenkins displayed how the contest hadn’t changed much from the way it started as a year ago: a nasty back-and-forth between two longtime politicians, one of whom (Morrisey) first ran for Congress, unsuccessfully, in New Jersey and the other of whom has changed his party affiliation more than once.
The moderators had to direct questions to the third contender: “Mr. Blankenship, let’s bring you in the mix here.”
His performance was memorable, if not for substance then for style. When the moderators asked the candidates to raise their hands if they’d support Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell for leader, Blankenship ducked behind his podium. And then, of course, there are the ads he released last week in which he takes on “Cocaine Mitch” and his “China family.” (McConnell is married to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan.)
Blankenship doubled down on those attacks when speaking to Roll Call last week, arguing that his ads weren’t racist because he never uttered a “race word.”
“Races are negro, white caucasian, Hispanic, Asian,” he said.
His campaign hasn’t tried to walk back any of those comments. From their perspective, any attention is good attention. Blankenship, like Trump, has benefited from disproportionate earned media.
It’s telling that Trump and the other candidates aren’t going after Blankenship for those controversial remarks. Morrisey attacked him over the weekend for serving a year in prison, for refusing to rule out running as a third party candidate and for not filing a personal financial disclosure form.
“West Virginia is probably the most conservative electorate in the country. And in the era of Trump, bombastic statements lend credibility as opposed to being a gaffe,” the consultant unaffiliated with any of the candidates said.
Still, there are plenty of people suspicious of Blankenship, even among those who show up to his events.
One man at last week’s event at Macado’s asked: “I know you lost a year of your life behind bars. … Are you interested in payback for that or are you interested in putting your foot forward and doing something?”
Blankenship seemed used to the question: “If I wanted to get Joe Manchin, I could spend a million and a half dollars and just run ads against him,” he said. “I don’t have to go out myself and try to beat him.”
He neglected to mention he gets a cheaper advertising rate as a candidate.