Don Blankenship has become the most talked about candidate in the race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia. The former Massey Energy CEO has been spending most of his time and a lot of his own money on the campaign since he entered the race four months ago and it’s paying off.
The race appears to have separated into two tiers—Blankenship, 3rd District Congressman Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are in the top tier, with Bo Copley, Jack Newbrough and Tom Willis in the second tier.
So, how is this going to unfold? The 2014 Republican Primary for the U.S. Senate isn’t exactly analogous because incumbent Shelley Moore Capito had light opposition. However, it can serve as a reference point.
Only 85,332 people voted in that Republican Primary, which represented just 15 percent of the Republicans and Independents eligible to vote. This year’s race is more competitive so a larger turnout is expected–let’s say 20 percent.
At current registration levels, that means 130,000 West Virginians would vote in the race. Naturally, the votes won’t be divided evenly among the six, but a candidate could emerge at the top with just 40,000 to 45,000 votes.
Blankenship’s advantage in time and money has put Jenkins and Morrisey in a tough spot as we head toward May 8. Jenkins and Morrisey sparred with each other during a candidate debate in Martinsburg earlier this week, but neither can get ahead that way.
Jenkins or Morrisey would be wise to make this a two man race, with Blankenship as the other candidate. One of the candidates could accomplish that by going after Blankenship—hard. None of the candidates has done that yet, which gives Blankenship a free pass on his considerable baggage.
Blankenship was in charge of Massey Energy when the company’s Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 miners. Yesterday was the 8th anniversary of the tragedy. Blankenship became the face of that catastrophe.
After a lengthy trial in federal court, he was convicted of a misdemeanor of conspiring to violate mine safety standards and spent a year in prison. Blankenship continues to argue his innocence, but the facts remain.
The ad against Blankenship almost writes itself, given the former coal executive’s background.
Blankenship is a puncher and a counterpuncher, so he will hit back forcefully, but that will actually reinforce the notion that it’s a two-person race. And does any candidate have a higher ceiling on their negatives than Blankenship?
In a more perfect political world the outcome would be based purely on which candidate makes a more compelling case for their positions, and issues are important. However, these candidates have nearly carbon copy views on Republican litmus test issues so a rock fight is inevitable, if anyone not named Blankenship expects to win.