Don Blankenship’s Southern Strategy

The convicted coal baron could win the West Virginia Senate primary on Trump-style nativism.

Republican primary candidate for U.S. Senate Don Blankenship speaks at a town hall meeting at West Virginia University on March 1 in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Republican primary candidate for U.S. Senate Don Blankenship speaks at a town hall meeting at West Virginia University on March 1 in Morgantown, West Virginia. Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

On Tuesday, West Virginia Republicans will pick a nominee to challenge incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. They have three choices: Evan Jenkins, a congressional representative; Patrick Morrisey, the state attorney general; and Don Blankenship, a former coal baron found criminally liable after a 2010 mining explosion killed 29 people, the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

Despite his conviction for violating federal regulations and a year spent in prison, Blankenship is reportedly leading the Senate pack. According to an internal poll conducted by a rival campaign, he leads with 31 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Jenkins and 27 percent for Morrisey. It’s a substantial change from just two weeks earlier, when Blankenship trailed his competitors, and it has spooked national Republicans enough to prompt an early-morning Twitter intervention from President Donald Trump, who urged Republican voters to reject Blankenship on electability grounds. “To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference,” Trump said. “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State…No way!”

It’s unclear whether Trump will have an impact, especially in light of last year’s Senate special election in Alabama, where he took a similar stance against Roy Moore in the race to replace Jeff Sessions, hoping to rally Republicans to Luther Strange. Instead, Alabama Republicans flocked to Moore, giving him the nomination in a deliberate rebuke to the party establishment. And Moore might have won that race if not for his history of misconduct with teenage girls.

There’s an irony here. Just two years ago, establishment Republicans—and even those just outside the establishment—were urging Republican voters to reject Donald Trump in the presidential primary. Their pleas fell on deaf ears. Large minorities (and eventually majorities) of Republican voters would back Trump, leading him to easy victory against his rivals. Which gets to the larger story: In contest after contest, a substantial number of rank-and-file Republicans are drawn to the most demagogic and anti-social candidates in the field, regardless of record or past transgressions. While this phenomenon predates Trump—you see inklings in Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle, and Todd Akin—it’s come to full fruition in the wake of his success.

The other examples, beyond Blankenship and Moore, are Corey Stewart in Virginia and Joe Arpaio in Arizona. Despite lagging far behind in fundraising, Stewart nearly toppled Ed Gillespie for the Republican gubernatorial nomination last year, shooting into a close second on a message of Confederate nostalgia and white racial resentment, which was nearly enough to overcome Gillespie’s more sedate suburban Republicanism. Now, Stewart is running for Senate on a similar message.

In Arizona, the 85-year-old Arpaio built his career on the cruel and racist administration of law enforcement, degrading prisoners and directing his deputies to racially profile Hispanic residents as the sheriff of Maricopa County. His profiling led to a lawsuit, a court order to cease this behavior, and then criminal contempt of court when he refused. He was set to be sentenced for that conviction when he was pardoned by President Trump, who praised him as a defender of “law and order.” Despite his age, Arpaio has entered the ring for the Senate, seeking the seat soon to be vacated by Sen. Jeff Flake. Arpaio trails in the most recent polls, but he remains close enough to make winning a real possibility.

What unites these candidates, or rather what makes them appealing to Republican voters, is their vicious disdain for common morality, an attitude they signal with racism and nativism. Stewart flew Confederate flags and rallied for Confederate monuments. Arpaio’s whole brand rests on racist hatred of Hispanic immigrants. Trump is, well, Trump. And Blankenship’s polling surge is concurrent with his attacks on Mitch McConnell, which center on the Senate majority leader’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. “Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people,” says Blankenship in a recent ad. “While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.” Taking a page from Trump, Blankenship has refused to back down from his attacks, telling Roll Call that the ad was not about race. “Races are Negro, white Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian,” he said. “There’s no mention of a race. I’ve never used a race word.”

We should treat this as the strategy it is. By leaning into racism, Blankenship both shows opposition to the “establishment”—rejecting their norms and decorum—while priming and capitalizing on white racial resentment. Racism, in other words, may help Blankenship overcome the acute disadvantage of being responsible for the deaths of 29 people, just as it helped Trump survive the major scandals of his campaign.

It is euphemism to talk about this dynamic as simple populism or yearning for unconventional candidates. What we’re seeing is that, for some large cohort of Republican voters, racism and bigotry—or at least the anger and contempt they signal—are of paramount concern. And they’ll potentially forgive anything for men, like Blankenship, who affirm it.