Last May, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship completed his one year prison sentence after a federal jury found him guilty of conspiring to violate coal mine safety standards. The conviction was a result of the investigation into the 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners.
Now, less than one year after his release, Blankenship has emerged as one of the front runners in the crowded field for the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate, for a seat held by his long time nemesis Democrat Joe Manchin.
At first, Blankenship’s entry into the race seemed like a lark, a way for Blankenship to advance his claim that investigators missed the real cause of the UBB disaster and that Manchin and Barack Obama engineered his prosecution.
However, Blankenship has evolved into a full-fledged candidate, well-financed and driven. He has already spent more than $1 million of his own money and has enough personal resources to spend much more. He’s traveling across the state, holding town hall meetings.
Blankenship has some of the same appeal that propelled Donald Trump to 69 percent of the vote in West Virginia; he is an insurgent with the same “Drain the Swamp” mentality as Trump.
The consensus of candidate polls and campaign observers is that he, 3rd District Congressman Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are in a statistical tie with just a little over six weeks before the Primary Election.
Alex Isenstadt, reporting from Washington, D.C. for Politico, writes that the Blankenship phenomenon has put national Republican Party leaders in a bind; they’re targeting Manchin for defeat in November, but they are worried about backing a candidate with a truckload of baggage.
“Senior party officials are wrestling with how, or even whether, to intervene,” Isenstadt wrote. “Many of them are convinced that Blankenship… would be a surefire loss against Democratic Senator Joe Manchin—and potentially become a national stain for the party.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already said he does not want Blankenship to win the nomination.
But comments like that only reinforce Blankenship’s brand as an anti-establishment candidate. He told Politico he believes a GOP attack on him would actually win him votes here. “I think the Republicans in West Virginia are not really happy with the Republicans in the Senate and the House in general,” he said.
One source with an opposing campaign cautioned against assigning excessive momentum to Blankenship. They argued that none of the other candidates have started their TV ads yet, and when they take aim at Blankenship, his numbers will come down.
That is normally how campaigns go, but here is the challenge for the other candidates: What negative can they say about Blankenship that has not already been said 1,000 times over? His downside may already be baked in to his current numbers.
One year ago, Blankenship was in a federal prison and the thought of him as the Republican U.S. Senate nominee would have seemed absurd. Many had the same reaction in June 2015 when Donald Trump announced his candidacy, but when Election Day arrived, seven out of every ten voters in West Virginia chose Trump.
The U.S. Senate Republican Primary is a crowded field of six candidates with Blankenship, Jenkins and Morrisey at the top of the heap. The winner needs only a plurality; 30 to 35 percent could win the race, and as of today that’s within reach for Blankenship.