Election 2020

‘Dark Lord of Coal’ Casts Shadow Over West Virginia GOP Senate Primary

Former Massey CEO and West Virginia Republican Senatorial candidate Don Blankenship listens as supporter Doug Smith poses a question during a town hall to kick off his campaign in Logan, W.Va., on Jan. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Don Blankenship, branded the “Dark Lord of Coal Country” by Rolling Stone in November 2010, wants to do more than push Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) out of Washington. Blankenship also wants to clear his name — and GOP leaders are afraid he’ll do both.

The fear is that Blankenship’s name on the November ballot will be as toxic as Roy Moore’s moniker was for the GOP in Alabama last December. And the West Virginia seat is one Republicans would love to flip in November.

Blankenship is campaigning for office while on supervised release from federal prison. The court-mandated supervision ends a few days after West Virginia’s May 8 primary.

Even though Blankenship is running for office in West Virginia, federal officials are managing his release in Las Vegas, which he and his attorneys have said is the former coal industry executive’s home.

In a court motion filed Wednesday, Blankenship and a new team of attorneys argued federal prosecutors and the Labor Department failed to turn over hundreds of pages of documents that could have helped the defense in his trial following the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia.

“The newly discovered evidence, withheld by the prosecution until after trial, would have tipped the balance in Mr. Blankenship’s favor,” the motion read.

A federal jury convicted Blankenship in December 2015 of conspiracy to violate national mine safety and health standards when he was chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Co.

Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison and a $250,000 fine for his conviction on the misdemeanor charge.

He was found not guilty of felony charges involving an alleged conspiracy to block government inspections of Massey’s mining operations and misleading investors.

Blankenship’s effort to clear his name of a criminal conviction isn’t only being waged in court. He is also making his case to the Republican voters of West Virginia. Blankenship is running a radio ad that says the federal government — with the help of a judge appointed by President Obama — was out to get him.

Blankenship’s also running a TV ad that calls for the arrest of Hillary Clinton. His campaign has another that accuses one of his primary opponents — Patrick Morrisey — of not being pro-life, and still another ad that charges a third GOP candidate, Evan Jenkins, with being nothing but a career GOP politician who has been disloyal to President Trump.

“A lot of people outside of West Virginia look at this guy who did a year in prison … so they’re like, how can this be a serious candidate?” Mike Plante, a Democratic strategist based in West Virginia, told The Hill. “[But] the idea that the cultural elites are out against me … finds fertile ground.”

Blankenship isn’t doing too badly.

The Wheeling News-Register reported in March that a survey commissioned by Jennings had Jennings in first place; Blankenship was in second, and closing fast.

The poll also showed Morrisey was in third place in the Senate GOP primary race, and falling fast.

The Harper Polling survey had Jenkins leading the GOP pack with 29 percent of Republicans planning to vote for him. Blankenship was in second, only two points back at 27 percent, while Morrisey was at 19 percent.

Three other GOP Senate primary candidates are all at or below 4 percent of the vote.

Greg Thomas, Blankenship’s top campaign adviser, told US News that as far as he is concerned  Blankenship has already won the May 8 GOP primary.

“It’s been over for weeks,” Thomas said. “I know what it feels like to win, I know what it feels like to lose. This is what winning feels like. The way it feels right now.”

The Blankenship campaign’s strategy has been simple and straightforward, according to Thomas.

“We’ve run more ads, we’ve sent out more mail, Don attends more events, we make more volunteer phone calls,” Thomas said. “We spend less time in D.C. whining like little bitches.”

Jenkins had to admit he didn’t see this coming.

“This race is now very different than what people expected,” Jenkins said. “Don’s checkbook has put him into second place, but polling shows he’s a very polarizing candidate.”

Cue the Republican establishment.

Blankenship is doing so well that the GOP leadership has formed a super PAC with the sole purpose of ensuring the Republican doesn’t win their party’s nomination.

Politico reported television ads from the Mountain Families PAC — an organization that the GOP might not be publicly promoting, but “its fingerprints are all over it” — went on air the second week of April.

The $700,000 flight of 30-second ads accuses Massey of polluting drinking water by pumping “toxic coal slurry” while Blankenship installed a private pumping system to make sure he’d be drinking clean water in his mansion.

“Who will clean up Washington? Not convicted criminal Don Blankenship,” warns the ad’s narrator. “Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?”

Blankenship told The Hill that the White House has assured him they won’t interfere in the GOP Senate primary.

“I think they’re going to stand aside, if you will, and let the Republican race be what it is,” Blankenship said, “and then I’ll go up and tell them how we’re going to beat Manchin.”