Don Blankenship Can Absolutely Win

Some internal polls have shown Don Blankenship surging into the lead in the Republican senatorial primary in West Virginia. Whoever wins will earn the right to take on Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in the fall, and while Manchin is a formidable politician with a long record of electoral success, he’s also in the wrong party. In 2016, Donald Trump received 489,371 votes (69 percent) in the Mountain State, compared with 188,794 votes (26 percent) for Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s star may have dimmed a bit in the interim, but based on a similar turnout Manchin would need to win over about 150,000 Trump voters without losing any Clinton voters just to break even.  Since turnout won’t be quite as high in a midterm election cycle, Manchin’s challenge will be a bit less challenging than that, but it will still be tough plowing.

This morning, the president sent out a tweet discouraging his supporters in West Virginia from voting for Blankenship because he supposedly cannot win.

Notice that the president made no moral argument against Blankenship. He didn’t say that he’d be a bad choice because of his record or his rhetoric or his policy positions. Trump’s only stated rationale for opposing Blankenship is that he would lose just like Roy Moore lost in Alabama’s special election to replace Jeff Sessions in the Senate.

This is confounding for more than moral reasons. The last time they polled this race, Blankenship was languishing in a distant third place. He has surged in the last two weeks precisely because he’s been doing things like calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell a criminal in league with Chinese cocaine traffickers connected to McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. This is the same kind of racist conspiracy nonsense Trump used to attack Barack Obama and Ted Cruz. Evidently, the people of West Virginia respond positively to this kind of campaigning. West Virginia had been trending away from the Democrats ever since they voted for Bill Clinton in 1996, but Hillary Clinton was absolutely destroyed there. Blankenship is coming up in the polls because he’s following Trump’s playbook, and there’s nothing to indicate that it would lead to his defeat against Manchin in November.

Being openly racist and conspiratorial obviously has its drawbacks, but it looks like a winning formula in much of the country right now, and there’s no place where it looks more promising than West Virginia.

Mitch McConnell might even agree if he and his wife weren’t among the targets in this case.

That’s not to say that Blankenship would definitely beat Manchin. Manchin has run many successful campaigns, including both gubernatorial and senate runs, so he has his own formula for winning statewide. And Blankenship has vulnerabilities beyond the ones he’s creating for himself now in the late stages of the primary.

Here is the man who less than a decade ago was regarded as the most hated man in West Virginia — a guy who was convicted of a misdemeanor related to the deaths of more than two dozen people.

That’s a reference to a 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine that cost 29 coal miners their lives. Blankenship, who was then serving as Massey’s chief executive officer, was held responsible and sent to prison.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court rejected Blankenship’s bid to have his appeal heard.

Four investigations found that worn and broken cutting equipment created a spark that ignited accumulations of coal dust and methane gas. Broken and clogged water sprayers allowed what should have been a minor flare-up to become an inferno. The federal jury held Blankenship at least partially responsible.

In this case, McConnell would prefer to see Manchin reelected even if it costs him his job as Senate Majority Leader, than to see Blankenship seated in his caucus.  McConnell may say that his concern is with Blankenship’s electability or even with his racism, but it’s more personal than that.  In truth, Blankenship may represent the GOP’s best chance of winning this seat and therefore of retaining their narrow majority in the Senate.

An additional advantage here is that no one will be able to blame McConnell if he doesn’t lift a finger to help Blankenship, which will allow the Republicans to make a more plausible effort of quarantining Blankenship’s radicalism. After all, the Democrats will justifiably seize on Blankenship’s history and intemperate statements to attack all Republican candidates for office.  McConnell can and will distance himself in ways he wasn’t quite willing to do in the case of Roy Moore. In that case, the victims were the young women and girls that Moore preyed upon, but in this case McConnell and his wife are under attack.

Even so, the GOP will pay a heavy price if Blankenship wins the nomination. But it won’t necessarily be a price they pay in West Virginia.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.