WHEELING, West Virginia—At a primary debate here on Monday night, six Republicans vying to represent West Virginia in the U.S. Senate were asked if there is any issue where they disagree with President Donald Trump.
“No,” said Jack Newbrough, a trucker whose immediate reply was quickly matched by the next four candidates.
Rep. Evan Jenkins, the GOP establishment’s preferred candidate, mentioned, for neither the first nor the last time in the evening, that he had been a “proud supporter” of Trump from the beginning and would never join the chorus of those “picking on him.” Not to be outdone, the state’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, who has the backing of many conservative groups, described the pride he felt as an Electoral College member in 2016 when he cast his ballot for the president and made sure to mention a personal meeting with the president—no big deal—noting that “this guy’s a prankster.”
Only the sixth and final candidate—the quiet one with no tie, whose mere presence in the race strikes fear into the heart of Mitch McConnell—was left to disagree.
“Actually, I disagree with the president on a lot of things,” said Don Blankenship, the convicted coal baron, in a soft, drawling voice, “but I love him to death—to think that we were very lucky to dodge the bullet of Hillary Clinton.”
Now, Republicans are trying to dodge the bullet of Don Blankenship. Blankenship was in prison this time last year, nearing the end of a one-year sentence for misdemeanor conspiracy to violate mining safety standards. As CEO of Massey Energy, he presided over the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion in which 29 coal miners lost their lives. He has argued that his prosecution was political, coming at the hands of both President Barack Obama’s federal government and then-Gov. Joe Manchin’s state government. Blankenship’s campaign is an opportunity for revenge against Manchin, who now holds the Senate seat, and his supposed martyrdom at the hands of Obama has helped make Blankenship a top contender. After blanketing the airwaves with ads—paid for out of his own pocket—polling in March showed him right in the thick of it alongside Morrisey and Jenkins.
The fear within the GOP establishment is that they could squander a prime pickup opportunity in a blood-red state—where Trump won with 68 percent of the vote— on a candidate fresh out of jail for mining safety violations that led to the deaths of 29 people. So, they’ve sent in the cavalry. An independent-expenditures group called Mountain Families PAC—organized by the usual assortment of Washington and Northern Virginia GOP operatives—has been running ads against Blankenship. The attacks might be working, too: A poll released during Monday night’s debate showed Blankenship’s position faltering.
With two weeks to go until the May 8 primary, Democrats have countered by bolstering Blankenship. A Democratic-aligned group, Duty and Country PAC, has begun spending hundreds of thousands of dollars aimed at bringing down Morrisey and Jenkins—though they’ve mostly focused on Jenkins. The Federal Election Commission–listed treasurer for the group is Booth Goodwin, who oversaw the prosecution of Blankenship during his tenure as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. In other words, the man who put Blankenship behind bars is now aiding his primary campaign. In a strategy that has never backfired spectacularly for the party, Democrats hope to usher Blankenship through the primary so that Manchin can waltz through the general election.
If the attacks are bothering Blankenship, he didn’t show it on Monday night. As his competitors fake-smiled at each other, Blankenship barely shot anyone a glance. When it wasn’t his turn to speak, Blankenship would put on his reading glasses and take notes. He seemed oblivious, at times, that others were even with him, or that he wasn’t supposed to touch Donald Trump with even the mildest of critiques.
“I don’t agree with his personal behavior at times,” he said. “I sometimes worry that we still have this tendency to police the world, which is very expensive for American taxpayers. I agree with Comey that his tie’s a little too long. I think he tweets too much.”
Jenkins, for his part, is trying to use the Democratic attacks as a rallying cry, arguing that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are trying to destroy him because they know he has the best chance to beat Manchin. It’s always a boring, establishment move to argue that primary voters should choose you because you’re the most electable, so Jenkins is trying to reframe the same basic idea into a tale of how national Democrats fear his nomination. (Jenkins also reiterated several times what he saw as the stakes of the election, too, warning that Democrats would pursue impeachment should they retake control of Congress.)
Jenkins’ pitch is complicated by the presence of Morrisey, the state attorney general, who checks all the boxes for hard-right conservative voters, like endorsements from pro-life groups and “all the gun groups,” as well as a long-record of lawsuits filed against the Obama administration. He described how he’s “working with the president” to bring an end to “these awful sanctuary cities.” During a discussion on guns, which immediately became a competition about who loves guns the most—“I’m carrying,” Newbrough said—Morrisey described how he had just partnered with the NRA at a local middle school to do a “physical assessment” of how to prevent mass shootings.
But rank-and-file Republicans have shown a willingness to reject anyone affiliated not just with the party establishment, but with electoral politics in general. Just as Roy Moore was the spoiler to Luther Strange and Mo Brooks in Alabama, and Donald Trump was the spoiler to Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, there just has to be that wild card upending the plot who doesn’t say all of the right things but thrives on harvesting anti-establishment antipathy.
On the gun question, Blankenship quickly got it out of the way that he obviously wouldn’t touch the Second Amendment. But then he made my favorite segue, in a night overflowing with self-aggrandizing segues.
“It’s not just the Second Amendment that’s under assault,” he said. “The First Amendment’s under assault.” I expected a digression about the free-speech culture of college campuses—and he would eventually get to that—but Blankenship first turned instead to his own experience. “They put a gag order on me shortly after I was indicted,” he said, positioning himself a free speech martyr, too.
When he returned to the Second Amendment, Blankenship made another remark that qualifies as surprising in a West Virginia GOP primary.
“Guns are a problem in this country, because there’s a lot of ‘em,” he said. “But I think … that if we ban guns at this point, given as many as there are, that only the criminals will have guns, and I don’t want to go there.”
I’m not sure I’d heard a Republican politician so straightforwardly concede that the country’s gun supply is the cause of its unique gun violence, even if he didn’t arrive at a very radical solution. It was far more notable than the other candidates’ canned responses, whether Morrisey’s tale of casing out a middle school with the NRA or Jenkins describing how, when the House Republican conference reads aloud the Constitution on the floor at the beginning of each Congress, he gets to read the Second Amendment.
Blankenship had another moment like this, too, when the candidates were asked about whether they would cut federal entitlements in a poor state that relies so heavily on them. Jenkins, in one of his bits, addressed West Virginians and pledged never to privatize Social Security or to cut Medicare. (He didn’t mention Medicaid, for good reason.) Morrisey likewise said he wouldn’t touch those programs for current recipients and would only go after the waste and fraud within Medicaid.
When it was Blankenship’s turn, he looked up from his notes.
“At some point we’re going to have to be a little bit older when we get Social Security,” he said. The entitlement programs need to be addressed, he said, “if you call them that. I don’t think they’re really entitled to them.” And then the conversation moved on.
If Blankenship is playing the role of a Roy Moore or a Donald Trump, it’s an understated performance. His personality is nothing like theirs—where Trump and Moore seemed to breathe publicity, Blankenship eschews the spotlight. During the debate, Blankenship seemed like he’d rather be locked in a basement hideaway, alone, double-checking the math on a corporate accounting filing. If Blankenship wants his revenge against Joe Manchin, he’ll need to give people a reason to watch.