National Republicans Pushing Back Against Upstart, Racist Candidate In West Virginia

National Republicans are increasingly concerned that an upstart, racist candidate who has unleashed personal attacks on Mitch McConnell's family will sneak through and win tomorrow's primary to decide who will face Joe Manchin in November.

Republicans in West Virginia and around the country are nervously looking at tomorrow’s primary in West Virginia, where an upstart candidate who has tied himself to Donald Trump and unleashed racist attacks on the family of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is threatening to win a closely-fought race for the right to take on Senator Joe Manchin in November:

There is growing concern among Republicans that Don Blankenship, a bombastic coal baron who has spent time in prison, is surging ahead of Tuesday’s West Virginia Senate primary — and a last-minute campaign is underway to stop him.

As the tight contest hurtles to a close, four Republicans said they’d reviewed polling conducted in recent days showing Blankenship, who spent a year in jail following the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers, moving narrowly ahead of his more mainstream GOP rivals, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

The Republicans cautioned that the surveys, designed to offer a snapshot of the race, were conducted over a brief period of time and may be overstating Blankenship’s support.

Still, Blankenship’s rivals and other Republicans are alarmed. Many are convinced that a Blankenship win, coming just months after the disastrous Alabama Senate race, would destroy the party’s prospects of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November.

Some Republicans involved in the race said they were hoping the White House would intervene ahead of the Tuesday primary, though it remains unclear whether it will do so.

On Thursday, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., sent out a tweet asking “the people of West Virginia to make a wise decision and reject Blankenship.”

“No more fumbles like Alabama,” he added. “We need to win in November.”

Morrisey, who’d largely been ignoring Blankenship, has suddenly turned his fire on the coal baron. On Saturday, Morrisey’s campaign released a 30-second robocall to West Virginia voters blasting Blankenship on an array of issues. The call described Blankenship as a “convicted criminal” who didn’t vote for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It also highlighted his Nevada residency.

“A vote for Blankenship is a vote to advance liberal positions, higher taxes and abortion on demand,” the voice-over says. “That’s because Blankenship would get crushed in November.”

On Sunday afternoon, Morrisey is slated to hold a news conference to “talk about Don Blankenship’s criminal record, his significant legal issues, and how his candidacy threatens West Virginia’s conservative agenda,” according to a media advisory his campaign sent out over the weekend.

A Blankenship strategist, Greg Thomas, shrugged off the eleventh-hour assault.

“We have run hard from beginning to end, and we are encouraged by the desperation we are seeing from our opposition,” he said in a text message.

The Hill also reports on the efforts of GOP insiders to push back against any last minute surge toward Blankenship:

National Republicans are making a hard turn against ex-coal CEO Don Blankenship in the final days before the West Virginia GOP primary.

After staying largely on the sidelines of the race, they’re unleashing a rhetorical firestorm against the anti-establishment candidate.

Republicans have been wary of directly attacking Blankenship despite concerns that he would have little chance of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) in the general election. The GOP wants a strong candidate, viewing Manchin as vulnerable after President Trump carried West Virginia by more than 40 percentage points in the 2016 election

But the hands-off approach has changed in the home stretch of the heated primary. Republicans are signaling alarm that Blankenship could mount an eleventh-hour comeback despite polling from last month that showed him behind Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.) and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Trump hasn’t backed a favorite in the primary, but Donald Trump Jr.weighed in, urging West Virginia voters to “make a wise decision and reject Blankenship!”

“I know the first thing Manchin will do is run ads featuring the families of those 29 miners killed due to actions that sent you to prison. Can’t win the general… you should know that & if others in the GOP won’t say it, I will,” Trump Jr. added after Blankenship released a statement knocking the “establishment.”


Josh Holmes, a longtime adviser and former Hill staffer for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has dubbed Blankenship the “West Virginia Roy Moore.” Meanwhile, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who backs Morrisey, said during a campaign stop in West Virginia that Blankenship is an “outlier” and “not on the [Republican] spectrum.”

Mountain Families PAC, an Arlington, Va.-based super PAC with deep ties to the national party, seized on Trump Jr.’s tweet, releasing a video on Friday that included a screenshot of the comment and warned voters: “Don’t be fooled.”

“Evan Jenkins and Patrick Morrisey are the true conservatives. Don’t vote Don Blankenship,” the video adds.

No GOP outside group has officially aligned themselves with the PAC, which won’t have to disclose its donors until a filing deadline after the primary. But Mountain Families PAC has spent more than $1.3 million running web and TV ads against Blankenship.

The stepped-up campaign against Blankenship comes in the wake of campaign ads and videos that the apparently largely self-financed candidate has released that openly attack the Senate Majority Leader’s family based primarily on the fact that he is married to Secretary of the Department of Transportation Elaine Chao, who happens to be Chinese-American. Last week he released a video that was intended to run as a campaign ad during the final weekend of the campaign in which he makes reference to McConnell’s “China person” family, an apparent reference to Chao and her father both of whom are American citizens. Additionally, during interviews leading up to the release of the video, Blankenship referred to Chao’s father, who was born in China and is Chairman of the Board of an international shipping company as a “wealthy China-person.” He also implied that because of this alleged connection to China means that McConnell and Chao cannot be trusted to put American interests first. He has also made some rather bizarre references to McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch,” apparently claiming that he is a drug kingpin or something like that.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Blakenship, though, is the fact that he spent a year in prison due to his role as the head of Massey Energy, the owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine which was the site of a 2010 disaster that resulted in the death of 29 of the 31 miners who were on site at the time of a devastating explosion. Investigations found that the explosion was due to massive violations of mine safety laws on Massey’s part, and Blankenship was charged with multiple crimes that could have resulted in his being in prison for up to 30 years. In the end, he was only convicted of one charge and served roughly a year in a Federal prison. He was released less than a year ago. (Source) Given the importance of mining in West Virginia, and the fact that safety issues have been a big concern of mine workers in the eight years since the disaster, Republicans obviously fear that nominating him would essentially hand Senator Manchin with an easy victory in a state where he should be in political trouble given the shifting winds in the state.

Here’s the video that Blankenship released last week:

Looking at the polls, the signals are mixed and there are apparently some signs of a last-minute surge toward Blankenship. While Blankenship was polling as high as 29% in early March and was garnering 42% support in earlier polling in February, his numbers have fallen significantly since then. In the most recent poll, taken roughly two weeks ago, shows state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey leading the field with 28%, Congressman Evan Jenkins with 26%, and Blankenship down in third place at 15%. That same poll, though, showed as many as 18% of voters were undecided. Other recent polling showed Jenkins with a slight lead and Blankenship in the back of the pack at third place but with as many as 24% to 39% of voters undecided. (Source) At best for Republicans hoping to block Blankenship, this is somewhat good news but the lack of apparent public polling over the past two weeks could indicate that these older polls are out of date and that Blankenship could end up with a sufficient plurality to win the nomination. Unlike some other states, West Virginia does not have runoff elections for primaries (or the General Election) so it is still not beyond the realm of possibility that Blakenship could win the nomination.

Potentially complicating matters is the fact that President Trump has decided to wade into the primary battle against Blakenship, but done so in a manner that could end up frustrating Republican hopes of blocking him:

President Trump on Monday weighed in on the U.S. Senate race in West Virginia, urging Republican voters to reject combative newcomer Don Blankenship, a retired coal company executive, in favor of two more mainstream GOP candidates.

In a morning tweet, Trump echoed a growing concern among Republicans: A Blankenship win in Tuesday’s primary could jeopardize the party’s hopes of beating incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) in the general election this fall.

Blankenship, who has called himself “Trumpier than Trump,” spent a year in jail following the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers, and has referred to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s father — the Shanghai-born chairman of a global shipping company — as a “wealthy China-person.”

In a television ad, Blankenship also stepped up his attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), accusing him of creating “millions of jobs for China people.” (Elaine Chao is married to McConnell.)

“To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State … No way!”

Trump also asked West Virginia voters to “Remember Alabama” — a reference to Republican Roy Moore, who lost a Senate race to Democrat Doug Jones after allegations surfaced of Moore’s sexual advances toward teenagers.

“Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!” Trump concluded, referencing the two other GOP candidates on the ballot Tuesday in West Virginia: Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

In response, Blankenship issued a statement in which he said Trump “is a very busy man and he doesn’t know me and he doesn’t know how flawed my two main opponents are in this primary.”

“The establishment is misinforming him because they do not want me to be in the US Senate and promote the President’s agenda,” Blankenship said. “Tomorrow, West Virginia will send the swamp a message—no one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote.”

Here’s Trump’s Tweet:

Much like most national Republicans, Trump did not urge voters to vote for either Morrisey or Jenkins individually but is basically saying they should vote for either one, as long as they vote against Blankenship. The problem with this advice, of course, is that dividing the anti-Blankenship vote between those two candidates could end up splitting that vote sufficiently that it would allow Blankenship to get the plurality he needs to win.

On the General Election side of the equation, there has not been any significant polling done in the race since September of last year when polling showed Manchin leading either Morrisey or Jenkins by slight margins, but with a large percentage of voters at the time saying they were undecided. (Source) There does not appear to be any polling of a head-to-head match between Blakenship and Manchin, but most analysts suspect that Manchin would have no trouble defeating the former coal magnate based both on his business record and on the fact that Blankenship is likely to get little support from national Republicans if he does somehow manage to win the nomination. Further complicating matters is the fact that Blankenship refuses to rule out running as an independent in the General Election, although it’s worth noting that West Virginia has a “sore loser“” law that bars candidates who have lost a party primary from running in the General Election. It’s unclear, though, if that law would bar Blankenship from running a write-in campaign. While Finally, it’s worth noting that President Trump won West Virginia by more than 300,000 votes in 2016, so Republicans are hoping that they could pull off an upset in the state with the right nominee. Blankenship, obviously, would throw a gigantic monkey wrench into those plans and could imperil the GOP’s chances of maintaining control of the Senate depending on what happens elsewhere in the country.

UpdateThe Hill reports that an internal poll shows Blankenship leading:

Internal Republican polls show ex-coal CEO and former convict Don Blankenship in the lead a day before West Virginia’s critical Senate primary, prompting more GOP fears about a Blankenship surge.

An internal poll from one of Blankenship’s rivals taken on Saturday and Sunday found Blankenship slightly ahead with 31 percent of the vote, according to The Weekly Standard. GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins came in second with 28 percent, and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) in third with 27 percent.

Another internal survey taken on Friday and Saturday also showed Blankenship with a narrow lead with 28 percent of the vote. This poll found Morrisey in second place with 27 percent, while Jenkins received just 14 percent.

This one will likely go down to the wire.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2018, Congress, US Politics, , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. Pete S says:

    Maybe instead of trying late pushes to block particularly odious candidates, “National Republicans” should stop building a party base that wants to support a convicted felon running a racist campaign. Or is it too late to get that toothpaste back in the tube?

  2. Franklin says:

    The call described Blankenship as a “convicted criminal” who didn’t vote for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

    Hmm, he only sounds half bad.

  3. @Franklin:

    Of course the reason he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 is because he was in prison at the time.

  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The racist part is not a problem for the national GOP. In fact, until recently they only objected to “openly racist” but that no longer applies. They just think a corrupt, greedy, “killer” of 29 WV WWC coal miners will lose. If they thought for a second he would win they’d back him to the hilt.

  5. Kathy says:

    One could point out the rank hypocrisy on the part of Trump, when after all he opened the door to this kind of candidate. But we should be aware by now that Hypocrisy is the Trump family religion.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    During the years I lived in the South (Louisiana and Georgia) it really struck me just how many people didn’t care how about a politician’s morals, criminal history, corruption or even basic human decency as long as they were willing to “tell it like it is”. Which really meant how willing they were to express contempt for people their voters didn’t like, I.e. minorities, people who were noticeably educated, Yankees, etc. I started describing them as the type of people who would shoot holes in the bottom of the lifeboat because they couldn’t stand to see the other guy dry.

    I’m not surprised that WV fits right into that mold. BTW, was WV a slave state?

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MarkedMan: WV seceded from VA at the beginning of the Civil War.

    ETA: which is to say, it’s complicated. As part of VA it was a slave state, after secession there were still slaves there (proportionally less compared to the rest of VA) but they were fighting on the side of the angels.

  8. Joe says:

    IIRC, West Virginia was made up of most of the non-slave holding counties of Virginia.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    I grew up in Chicago and so was used to corrupt politicians who were elected after returning from jail. At that time the reasons foolish people voted for someone who was robbing them was mostly transactional. A construction worker cousin who had been injured in a highway accident and who went to his alderman for a toll taker job where he could remain seated and inside. Another relative who got the village to overrule their previous “wait and see” ruling and immediately remove a tree she feared would come down on her house. Things like that. But I was living in NOLA when David Duke was running for governor and was just astounded that people cared more about their representative properly disrespecting the poors than any benefit they might accrue for themselves. There was some Metarie based pol who was up for re-election. But before that, during Marci Gras he was grand Marshall of one of the old line Krewes whose Marci Gras parade ended at a Bourbon Street reviewing stand with the Mayor on a special platform. Traditionally, the Marshall shook the hand of the mayor but that year the mayor was black. His supporters would have been angry if he had shaken hands with a black guy but with all the national attention brought by Duke he didn’t want to attract outsider notice so he cleverly “solved” his problem by pretending he was so drunk that when he stood up to shake hands he fell right back down in his seat and then the float moved on because the driver pretended that the handshake had taken place. Now, I love NOLA, in fact it’s one of my favorite cities in the world but this kind of stupidity and pettiness drove me to distraction.

  10. Kylopod says:

    @MarkedMan: @OzarkHillbilly: It’s striking how WV and Virginia have switched places politically, given their origins as a single state that split over its allegiance during the Civil War. Virginia was once one of the most Republican states in the South (it’s one of the only Southern states that voted for Eisenhower and Ford), but over the past decade or so it’s been moving heavily in a Democratic direction. In contrast, WV remained solidly Democratic for a while after the rest of the South was increasingly becoming Republican. It was one of six states to vote for Carter in 1980, one of the 10 states that backed Dukakis in 1988. It started to vote Republican at the presidential level in 2000, and it gave Trump close to 70% of the vote in 2016, his highest share of the vote anywhere. But the two Senate seats remained in Democratic hands for some time largely due to the power of incumbency, as Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller had held their seats for decades. After Byrd’s death in 2010, the popular sitting governor Joe Manchin appointed a temporary replacement then ran for the seat himself and won. After Rockefeller retired in 2014, a Republican picked up a Senate seat in the state for the first time since the 1950s.

    Manchin still has a good chance of winning reelection regardless of his opponent, but he’s vulnerable, and he’s by some measures the most conservative Democrat currently in the Senate (while still to the left of any Republican). If he loses, it’s a good bet we won’t see another Democratic Senator in the state for some time.

    Basically, WV is a poor, mostly white state full of the kinds of voters who once voted Democrat but have moved rightward over social issues and coal (similar to Kentucky, another Civil War border state), while Virginia is a rich state with the types of well-to-do suburban voters who used to vote Republican.

  11. Franklin says:
  12. CSK says:

    You’d think there would be some reluctance amongst West Virginians to vote for a man who killed 29 West Virginians. On the other hand, paranoid ignoramus conspiracy-mongers appear to be in vogue these days.

  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Kylopod: Years ago I was generally in favor of things like the CIA Headquarters being moved to WV and all the military bases in the South and so forth. After all, siting them in a poorer state could help raise living standards and indirectly contribute to the local tax base which could lead to better schools, better infrastructure and generally a virtuous circle. But more and more I find my reaction to be “F’em”. The rural states don’t seem to be doing much to help themselves and they keep on electing politicians that spend all of their time talking about how I and my relatives aren’t real Americans and how we don’t have American values. These self-destructive states are already grossly over represented in the Senate, because Wyoming gets as many Senators as California, and in the House, due to gerrymandering. I feel that Blue staters like myself need to stop being patsies and fight for a bigger share of the pie. After all, we pay a lot more for ingredients to that pie than do our self-destructive brethren.

  14. MarkedMan says:

    @Kylopod: Great post

  15. MarkedMan says:

    @CSK: Remember, coal mine owners don’t kill people. Libruls kill people.

  16. Gustopher says:

    If the Republican establishment can line up behind child groper Moore in Alabama, then this guy will be a piece of cake to endorse in the general election if he wins the primary.

  17. Kit says:

    referred to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao’s father — the Shanghai-born chairman of a global shipping company — as a “wealthy China-person.”

    So, is China-person the politically preferred term in Red America these days? Blankenship sounds like a RINO.

  18. KM says:


    You’d think there would be some reluctance amongst West Virginians to vote for a man who killed 29 West Virginians.

    They were miners aka people engaged in an activity where the public’s not too surprised they were killed. Upset, yes but outraged, not so much as that’s an occupation that has traditionally been rather fatal to it’s members. Your average WV voter is far more likely to focus on the fact that there was a mining job for the miner to be killed on rather then the unsafe conditions that lead to the death. Hardscrabble regions can and will overlook an appalling amount of things in order to earn enough money to live – it’s why so many Republicans get shirty when the EPA or OSHA step in and “cost jobs” with “regulation”. A few deaths are tacitly acceptable so long as more benefit then harm is brought about and you can tell a region’s on the upswing when they start complaining about the conditions they were forced to grit their teeth about before.

  19. reid says:

    @CSK: Yes, I can’t wrap my mind around how a rich guy who was at fault for the deaths of 29 coal miners, of all things, is popular.

  20. Mister Bluster says:

    @KM:..A few deaths are tacitly acceptable
    To paraphrase REPUBLICAN President Pud: “they knew what they were getting in to…”

  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    Upstart, Racist

    You forgot “homicidal”.

  22. gVOR08 says:

    While Blankenship’s attacks on McConnell, at least the ones that make the national news, are absurd on their face, it’s fascinating that running against McConnell seems to be working for him.

  23. Not the IT Dept. says:

    It sucks for Elaine Chao but this is a woman who sees Mitch McConnell naked on a regular basis and doesn’t run out of the room screaming “my eyes, my eyes!!!” so I think she can take it. But it’s a reminder that Trump started his ride up the Republican primary polls when he attacked elected Republicans as well as Democrats back in 2015/16. If I’m betting, I’m putting my money on this guy to squeak through.

  24. Sleeping Dog says:

    The chickens come home to roost. While in California, Repugs fear that they will field no candidates for statewide offices. None will be popular enough to survive the unified primary.

  25. CSK says:

    As of 8:40 p.m., Blankenship appears to be in third place.

  26. Bob L.A. says:

    @MarkedMan: Hello, MM. People, and I include pundits in that category, do no understand West Virginia because the history they think they know is not the actual history.

    1. West Virginians were never that different from East Virginians. If you look at the county election map for the 1860 presidential election you will see that Virginia is solid Breckenridge/Bell, with a few Douglas counties. The two tippy top counties of WV’s northern panhandle went for Breckenridge.

    2. At the secession convention in Richmond in spring 1861 West Virginia had 49 delegates representing the 50 counties that became the new state. While they voted mostly against the secession ordinance on April 17, 1861, the part that historians leave out is that most of those delegates returned to Richmond once West Virginia was invaded by McClellan and they signed the ordinance, 29 of the 49 signed.

    3. While collectively the vote against the secession ordinance in WV was less than 2 to 1 against it (and this is an important point that historians neglect), that vote was not a pro-Union vote, it was a vote for the status quo. We know this because, like the Richmond delegates, who voted against the ordinance on April 17, a large number of citizens who voted agains it nevertheless joined Virginia’s Confederate regiments. Counties like Cabell, Wayne, Putnam, Jackson, etc, that had voted as much as 4 to 1 against the ordiance, gave half or more of their available men to Virginia, and not the Union. The most recent count of WV Civil War soldiers show that half were Confederate, WV was more supportive of the Confederacy than Kentucky or Missouri, which most historians do not understand.

    3. West Virginians had the same attitude toward slavery as the East. Even the Unionists in Wheeling did everything they could to maintain slavery in the new state they created. Wheeling was allowed to appoint 2 senators and 3 congressment as “Virginia”, and those men mostly argued against freeing the District of Columbia’s slaves in 1862. The state legislature that ended slavery in the new state in 1865 was composed of 40% non-native politicians, almost all Northern states, as well as a governor from Pennsylvania.

    4. The state was created without the approval of most of its inhabitants. Voting turnout was usually about 23% of the available pool, with a little over 1/3 showing up for the final vote in 1863. This was war, one side controlled the votes. There has never been a detailed study of these referenda. The only way they could create the state was during war when a fair vote could not be held.

    5. An enormous number of civilians were arrested by the Union government and Wheeling, I would estimate about 3,000 ended up in Camp Chase or in Wheeling prison.
    In Doddridge County, a safe “Union” county in northern WV, 1 of every 20 voters ended up in Camp Chase.

    West Virginia’s history as it is currently “understood”, even by historians, is nothing more that encoded wartime propaganda from Wheeling.