President Trump dropped a “May surprise” on the eve of the West Virginia Primary Election with a tweet about the race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. “To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a 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.”
The tweet created a powerful storyline in the closing hours of the campaign. Jenkins and Morrisey both tried to capitalize on the tweet, conveniently leaving out of their news releases that the President suggested voters pick Jenkins or Morrisey.
Nevertheless, the most important part of the tweet was that it discouraged voters from backing Blankenship, who appears to be surging in the polls. Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reported, “As the tight contest hurtles to a close, four Republicans said they’d reviewed polling conducted in recent days showing Blankenship… moving narrowly ahead of his more mainstream GOP rivals.” Meanwhile, Blankenship has his own poll showing him way ahead.
But here’s the fundamental question about Trump’s rejection of Blankenship and his backing of either Jenkins or Morrisey: As Fox News Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt has posited—is Trump a lagging indicator or a leading indicator?
If Trump is a leading indicator then he is at the front of the anti-establishment, drain-the-swamp movement that swept him into power. Trump’s titular leadership of a movement means he has followers—people who are responding to his leadership.
If that’s the case, it bodes well for Jenkins and Morrisey. West Virginia voters who gave Trump overwhelming victories in the 2016 Primary and General Elections will choose one of the candidates they believe is best suited to further enable Trump to carry out his agenda.
But if Trump is a lagging indicator he successfully tapped into the expanding resentment in West Virginia and much of rural America of the Washington status quo and beltway elites. That means Trump is not in command of the drain-the-swamp movement; he’s just the face of it.
If that’s what’s happening it’s better for Blankenship. As the former coal executive said in his response to Trump’s tweet, “As some have said, I am Trumpier than Trump and this morning proves it.”
It’s a peculiar paradigm; the more anyone in power dismisses Blankenship, the more it raises his standing as the anti-establishment candidate. Blankenship supporters are disrupters. As one Republican leader in West Virginia told me, “Trump is a messenger and a symbol of the alienated masses. Trump’s support is despite being Trump (and) Blankenship is even more so.”
We will know in just a few hours how this all plays out, and the results will be worth studying closely. If Blankenship wins, we’ll know that the campaign was not as much about Trump, but rather about the motivation of the West Virginians who elected him.