In 2016, Don Blankenship was sentenced to a prison term for his role in a massive mining disaster in West Virginia. In 2018, he's one of three leading candidates in next Tuesday's Republican Senate primary in the Mountain State.
Blankenship has drawn national attention in the past few days with his attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ("Cocaine Mitch" is what Blankenship has called him) and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who the West Virginia Republican has suggested has nefarious ties to a foreign power as the daughter of a "wealthy Chinaperson."
Most people assume Blankenship has disqualified himself in the primary against state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins. I reached out to my friend -- and the voice of West Virginia radio -- Hoppy Kercheval (Best. Name. Ever.) for answers.
Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Who is Don Blankenship? And what do West Virginians think of him?
Kercheval: Blankenship is the former longtime head of the coal company Massey Energy. He was a strong non-union operator who got involved in politics years ago -- not as a candidate, but rather as a financial supporter of conservative candidates and issues.
He started a PAC called "And for the Sake of the Kids" that poured his personal money into elections. He was a polarizing figure even before April 5, 2010. That's a day of infamy in West Virginia because on that day, Massey's Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 miners. Following an investigation, he was charged with safety violations at the mine and was eventually convicted of a misdemeanor to conspiracy to commit safety violations and sent to prison for one year. He has continued to profess his innocence, blame Obama and (Democratic Sen.) Joe Manchin for a political prosecution, but many West Virginians blame him for the deaths of those miners.
Cillizza: Why is he running? And does he have a chance to win?
Kercheval: He started out several months ago with a campaign to tell his side of the story of UBB. The campaign included television commercials with his version as well as blaming Obama and Manchin for his prosecution. I've been told that he figured out he could get the lowest unit rate for his campaign if he were a candidate, so he declared for the GOP nomination for the US Senate. He began to actively campaign, running ads and holding town hall meetings.
Then, a funny thing happened; He started to pick up steam and become a viable candidate. Because he was first in with ads, he was able to get early traction and define his leading opponents. His chances have diminished, however, in recent weeks as his leading opponents started campaigning more heavily and since a national PAC linked to Mitch McConnell began running ads against him.
Cillizza: National Republicans have made very clear they think he can't win against Joe Manchin in the fall. Is that right? Why or why not?
Kercheval: Blankenship has the least chance of any of the leading three of beating Manchin. His negatives are just too high, and there may well be a reluctance by national Republicans to help him. I just don't think Blankenship could stand up to the pounding over the coming months that would drill down on UBB and some of the safety/environmental issues when he was head of Massey.
Plus, Don says what is on his mind, which can be refreshing, but can also lead to some comments that get him in trouble. But remember, Trump got 69% of the vote in West Virginia -- beat Hillary by 40 points -- so the anti-establishment feeling is strong here, and Blankenship was anti-establishment before it was cool. Additionally, there's a wildcard: What if Trump came to WV and campaigned for him? That might be the only way he could beat Manchin.
Cillizza: What does it say -- if anything -- about West Virginia that Blankenship -- with his background and his message issues -- is even in contention?
Kercheval: See my last answer. West Virginia is a Trump state and the belief that Washington is broken, drain the swamp, is very strong here. There's a reason Trump keeps coming to West Virginia and drawing large crowds. His bluntness plays well with folks who are weary of political hedging.
Consider the (Senate) debate last night on the question of which of the candidates would support Mitch McConnell. Morrisey and Jenkins hedged. Blankenship wanted to wear a "Ditch Mitch" hat during the debate, but Fox wouldn't let him. Need I say more?
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "The Republican Senate nominee against Manchin will be __________." Now, explain.
Kercheval: "Evan Jenkins. No, wait, Patrick Morrisey, but don't rule out Blankenship just yet."
Sorry, but NO ONE knows what is going to happen here. The Fox poll had it close with a large undecided block. Blankenship helped himself last night, but he had the most distance to make up. Jenkins has been taking it on the chin from a Democratic PAC in recent weeks and that has hurt him. Morrisey insists he's in good position.
The conventional wisdom is that Morrisey could hold his own in the south (Jenkins' stronghold because he's a congressman from there) and then outperform the others in the rest of the state. I hate to hedge, but does the media really need one more bad election outcome prediction?