Ex-convict and former coal baron Don Blankenship has scrambled the GOP West Virginia Senate primary with his self-financed campaign and a series of over-the-top statements.
Republicans worry he is too toxic to win the general election against Sen. Joe Manchin (D) in November, who is widely seen as vulnerable in a state President Trump won in 2016 by 40 percent.
But now, in response to a series of attack ads launched against him by a super PAC connected to Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (KY), Blankenship is fighting back with a series of absurd claims — and attacking McConnell for alleged ties to China.
Blankenship is a case study in hypocrisy. He’s running for Senate in West Virginia, even though he’s an ex-convict whose primary residence is his Las Vegas mansion — and he can’t even leave Nevada until May without getting permission from his probation officer or a federal judge.
And, on Monday, Blankenship told a West Virginia radio show that McConnell — who is married to Elaine Chao, Trump’s secretary of transportation — had a “conflict of interest” and “people think he’s soft on China” because Chao’s father is “a wealthy Chinaperson” who has “a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China.”
Blankenship himself is exceedingly wealthy, worth tens of millions of dollars. In 2016 he paid $2.4 million in cash to buy the palatial villa in Las Vegas that he lives in, though he still owns a home in West Virginia.
His comments also demonstrate that he is exceedingly out of touch with his base. In response to accusations that some West Virginia voters consider him “an outsider, even a carpetbagger,” the New York Times reported Wednesday that Blankenship replied, “Many people have two homes. Most coal miners now have one in Tennessee and one in West Virginia.”
Blankenship’s most outrageous statements, however, involve his conviction for conspiring to violate mine safety standards in the lead up the deadliest coal mine disaster in decades — for which he spent a year in federal prison and is still on probation.
Blankenship has said he was “falsely imprisoned,” and he wrote a 68-page manifesto titled “An American Political Prisoner,” while in prison.
Last week, in a USA Today interview, he even compared himself to Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who spent nearly three decades in prison in his fight against apartheid: “There are situations in history where being in prison was an advantage,” Blankenship said.
In a segment Tuesday night on CBS’s Late Show, host Stephen Colbert mocked Blankenship for that comparison: “He truly is the Nelson Mandela of tampering with mine safety equipment.”
Some of McConnell’s most over-the-top statements involve China. In 2009, he was recorded saying, “I’m actually considering moving to China or somewhere and being more like George Washington if I can get citizenship.”
The Times reported that in their interview with the former coal baron, “he repeated this sentiment” and went on to praise their dictatorship. “The Chinese are running a dictatorial capitalism and it’s very effective,” he said. “That’s the way corporations are run. Corporations are not a democracy.”
It appears that, if elected, Blankenship might also want to bring this kind of thinking to the U.S. Senate.