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GOP fear next ‘election fiasco’ with ex-con coal baron’s soaring popularity

Republicans worry convicted former coal CEO Don Blankenship is too toxic to win the WV Senate general election in November

Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy at a Senate hearing on mine safety May 20, 2010.
CREDIT:  Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images
Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy at a Senate hearing on mine safety May 20, 2010. CREDIT: Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images

Former coal baron Don Blankenship is now in a dead heat in the GOP’s West Virginia Senate primary — even though he’s still on probation after serving one year in federal prison for conspiring to violate mine safety standards.

A poll conducted for the Senate campaign of Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R-WV) in advance of the May 8 primary put Morrisey and Blankenship in a statistical tie, with Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) several points behind. The winner will probably face Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in November, who is widely seen as vulnerable in a state President Trump won in 2016 by 40 percent.

But as Politico reported Tuesday morning, “National Republicans — on the heels of the Roy Moore and Rick Saccone debacles — worry they’re staring down their latest potential midterm election fiasco.” 

Blankenship is the former CEO of Massey Energy and has been a major figure in state politics for decades, helping turn West Virginia from solid blue to deep red in recent years with $200,000 in donations to GOP candidates and party committees. But his candidacy was originally viewed with some skepticism when he first announced he was running in November.

After all, Blankenship had recently finished a one-year sentence in federal prison for ignoring federal mine safety regulations in the lead up to the 2010 tragedy in Massey’s Upper Big Branch, which killed 29 miners, making it the worst coal mining disaster in decades.

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Indeed, one post-disaster profile of Blankenship called him “the Snidely Whiplash of coal, a larger-than-life figure so swaggering and creepy that his each next outrageous claim as chairman and C.E.O. of Massey Energy makes wonderful copy.”

But Blankenship is wealthy enough to self-finance, and has so far outspent both his rivals on TV ads by 30-to-1. In one ad, he slams Jenkins — who had been a Democrat House member before switching parties in 2013 — for supporting the 2009 House climate bill rather than Trump’s  position that climate change is a hoax.

While the New York Times reported last month that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he did not want to see Blankenship win the nomination, the national party hasn’t decided yet whether they will formally oppose him, as they did Roy Moore in Alabama.

But they will need to make up their minds soon. The primary is only seven weeks away.