Fearing another Alabama-like disaster, Republicans are upping their efforts to prevent an ex-con coal baron from becoming their Senate nominee in West Virginia next month—going from silence and snubs to barely concealed subterfuge.
A newly formed super PAC with ties to the GOP establishment is spending nearly $700,000 on attack ads against Don Blankenship, the former Massey Energy CEO who spent a year in prison in connection with an explosion that killed 29 men at one of his West Virginia mines in 2010. Republicans are afraid that conviction will be enough to tank Blankenship in a general election, spoiling the party’s chances of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin this fall in a state Trump won by more than 40 percentage points in 2016.
The 30-second spots, which began airing in the state late last week, accuse Massey Energy of contaminating local drinking water with “toxic coal slurry,” all while Blankenship pumped clean water into his own mansion. “Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?” the narrator says. (The company reached a settlement with hundreds of West Virginia residents in 2011, but it did not admit any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.)
Notably, the GOP tried to put some distance between itself and the attack. The group behind it, Mountain Families PAC, was created late last month as a standalone entity. But it didn’t take reporters long to connect the dots. The Charleston Gazette-Mail noticed almost immediately that the address the group gave to the FEC was a P.O. Box in Arlington, Virginia, and that its treasurer previously worked for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Politico then reported additional ties to Senate Republicans over the weekend.
The covert attack comes as Republicans have spent months trying to figure out how to derail Blankenship’s campaign. They fear that if they attack him directly, they’ll only boost his anti-establishment bona fides in a possible repeat of what happened in Alabama last year, when Donald Trump and national Republicans tried and failed to stop Roy Moore from getting the nomination. Moore won anyway, and then promptly lost the general election after damning allegations about his conduct with teenage girls.
Earlier this month, the White House attempted to thread the needle in West Virginia by having the president snub Blankenship during an official visit to the state. Flanked by Blankenship’s two rivals—state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins—Trump praised both men but made sure to not to mention Blankenship. Passive-aggressive attacks might not be enough to derail Blankenship, who is spending big on campaign ads that pledge allegiance to Trump and also offering a similar conspiracy- and persecution-themed pitch to voters.
Blankenship maintains that he was merely a “political prisoner” in the Obama administration’s war on coal and an innocent victim of a Benghazi-style cover-up. When he first jumped into the race last fall, many wondered whether his motivation was less about the Senate and more about rehabbing his image after getting out of prison. But with only three weeks to go until the primary, Blankenship has emerged as a top contender in a race that could help decide control of the Senate. He’s also proven willing to take covert action of his own. He recently launched a campaign website masquerading as an independent fact-checking organization, one that claims Blankenship was “unfair[ly]” convicted for his role in the mine explosion while simultaneously claiming he was “never even charged for anything related” to it.