Near the middle of a Fox News debate in West Virginia on Tuesday night, devilish moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum asked the three leading candidates for the Republican Senate nomination to raise their hand if they would support Mitch McConnell as GOP leader. The answers told the story of the race: One outlandish candidate provided the comic relief, while the two more likely candidates awkwardly dodged and seized on any opportunity to batter each other with sludge. In short, it was a great night for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
Don Blankenship, the ex-con coal baron who has begun calling McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” jokingly ducked behind his podium, to howls of applause. Rep. Evan Jenkins, the establishment-backed candidate, couldn’t see what Blankenship, to his left, was doing, and began his prepared answer: “He hasn’t asked—” before the applause for Blankenship cut him off. Jenkins continued once the ovation died down, saying it was “premature” to consider such questions and that McConnell deserved credit for engineering Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. In other words, he would obviously support Mitch McConnell as leader.
Patrick Morrisey, the state’s attorney general, while noting that he’s not a “product of the liberal establishment,” said that he too would make a decision after the general election. Morrisey is the preference of far-right policy conservatives, much as Ted Cruz was during the 2016 presidential primary, while Blankenship has found a following with the ascendant resentment wing of the party. And just like Cruz let Trump slide for most of that campaign, Morrisey was more interested in taking down Jenkins—the supposed establishment “liberal”—than he was in acknowledging Blankenship’s presence.
“I wasn’t the one recruited by the liberal establishment because of his very questionable record,” Morrisey said of Jenkins, whose political history has involved being a Democrat, a Republican, a Democrat, and since 2013, a Republican again. Throughout the debate, Morrisey mentioned that Jenkins has supported cap and trade and Obamacare, “rallied” for Hillary Clinton, and was on “the Barack Obama team.” There are some exaggerations and falsehoods here, and Jenkins, not for the only time in the debate, accused Morrisey of “spewing lies.”
There’s plenty to work with in Morrisey’s past too. He is from New Jersey, has run for Congress in New Jersey, and moved to West Virginia in 2006. Both he and his wife, Denise, have worked in lobbying, and his wife lobbied on behalf of a pharmaceutical company tied up in opioid legislation. It’s swampy stuff, and Jenkins accused Morrisey of making “millions” by “pushing pills” into the state. Morrisey, who has found time in his busy schedule of late to argue with Twitter randos over the issue, turned to Jenkins and said, “Did your mom ever tell ya that we should wash your mouth with soap with those lies?” The native of New Jersey by way of D.C. doesn’t convincingly execute these homespun lines. He is also bad at smiling.
The saddest moment of the evening came during the perfunctory segment over which candidate loves President Donald Trump the most. Jenkins made it sound like he endorsed Donald Trump for president on the first day of his presidential campaign, if not the first day of his life. Uh huh. It was only the day after the Indiana primary in May of 2016, when Trump knocked Cruz out of the race and essentially locked up the nomination, that Jenkins released a statement saying Trump was “the only candidate remaining in the presidential contest willing to support our coal miners and stop the Obama-Clinton radical agenda.” He did, at least, vote for the presumptive nominee in the primary a week later. Morrisey hasn’t said for whom he voted in that primary, and during the debate, he dodged Jenkins’ prosecution of the issue by noting that he did vote for Donald Trump in the general election and as a member of the Electoral College.
In the midst of this bloodletting, Blankenship mostly kept quiet, winning the debate by default. Sure, he had his share of eye-raising comments. He defended his recent use of the term wealthy Chinaperson to describe McConnell’s father-in-law. “I mean, I’m an American person,” he said. “I don’t see this insinuation by the press that there’s something racist about saying ‘a Chinaperson.’ Some people are Korean persons and some of ’em are African persons. It’s not any slander there.” It is difficult to see this matter being much of a drag in the West Virginia Senate Republican primary.
Surviving this debate as the least-hammered candidate says more about Blankenship’s current standing in the race than it does about his ability to win. In a rare instance of the playbook actually working, the ads that establishment-aligned super PACs have dumped on Blankenship in the past few weeks have shot him down into third place in recent public polling. If that’s where Blankenship finishes next Tuesday, though, national Republicans shouldn’t do too much celebrating. Blankenship might have been the story that drew the most national attention to the primary, but the story of the primary will have been how successfully Jenkins and Morrisey exposed the extraordinary weaknesses in each other.