Monday, April 16, 2018

Republicans attack ex-con coal CEO in W.Va. Senate race, fearing he will win May primary and lose in November

Don Blankenship
The contentious Republican primary for a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia has become a potential obstacle for the GOP's drive to preserve its two-seat Senate majority in the November elections. Career Republicans in many states are distancing themselves from President Trump, but his popularity in West Virginia — which had a higher share of votes for Trump than any other, 69 percent — led state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins to emphasize their support for Trump as candidates for the Senate seat, which is currently held by Democrat Joe Manchin, Asma Khalid reports for NPR.

But a third Republican candidate, Don Blankenship, is jeopardizing their odds with a mostly self-funded campaign that has turned the race into a three-way tie. Blankenship, the former Massey Energy CEO who spent a year in federal prison for his role in one of the nation's deadliest mine explosions in decades, mentions Trump the least in his campaign, but he has much in common with the president, as a wealthy political outsider with a polarizing message. "Some analysts say Blankenship's campaign is a vendetta — a personal quest to clear his name. But, even if it began as payback, it's morphed into something much more — he has an intense desire to crush his opponents and win at all costs," Khalid reports. "He's been running attack ads against both of his chief opponents, and they've been reluctant to punch back in public (or attack him directly about his prison record)."

Republican leaders are worried that Blankenship could be toxic in the general election, and some political operatives with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have spent nearly $700,000 on anti-Blankenship attack ads via a newly formed political action committee called the Mountain Families PAC. "The national party isn’t promoting its role in the group, but its fingerprints are all over it," Alex Isenstadt reports for Politico.

"At the same time, they’ve been concerned that attacking him would allow Blankenship to portray himself in the race as the embattled adversary of powerful D.C. interests," Isenstadt reports. "The scenario is similar to the one that played out in last year’s Alabama Senate race, when the party spent millions of dollars in an unsuccessful effort to stop former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore from winning the GOP nomination."

UPDATE, April 18: Tensions between Blankenship and the national Republican party heightened when Blankenship compared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to Russians interfering in political races, Alex Isenstadt reports for Politico. "McConnell should not be in the U.S. Senate, let alone be the Republican Majority Leader. He is a Swamp captain," Blankenship said in a statement Monday. "The Russians and McConnell should both stop interfering with elections outside their jurisdictions."

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