MOUNT HOPE, W. Va. – A defiant Don Blankenship on Monday shrugged off President Donald Trump’s last-minute plea for Republican primary voters to reject his insurgent Senate candidacy – and flatly predicted it would fail to halt his momentum.
On the final day of the dramatic West Virginia campaign, the coal baron and ex-prisoner seemed unbothered by the president’s foray into the contest, arguing that voters would see through it as the latest ploy in an establishment-led effort aimed at keeping him from winning the nomination.
“I think it’s still over,” he declared to reporters here during a frenzied final day of the race. “It probably tightens it a point or two, but I don’t think it matters much.”
At another point in the day, after a reporter asked if he was feeling confident, Blankenship had a deadpan response: “Yeah, we’re gonna win.”
Senior Republicans are fretting that Blankenship, who spent a year behind bars after the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers, has vaulted into the lead heading into Tuesday’s primary. GOP officials reviewed a range of surveys over the weekend, with some showing Blankenship holding a narrow single-digit advantage over his mainstream opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Others had Blankenship ahead by more.
The national GOP has waged an all-out campaign to stop him from winning the nomination. They’re convinced would destroy the party’s prospects of ousting Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November. And many Republicans say a Blankenship win would be yet another black eye for the party, which is still reeling from last year’s loss in the Alabama special election.
Over the past month, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has spent over $1.3 million on a barrage of anti-Blankenship TV ads.
With the former prisoner gaining momentum, the effort to stop him has gone into overdrive. As the race entered its final day, Blankenship’s rivals – who had spent almost the entire campaign attacking one another – turned their fire on him.
In a not-so-veiled jab at Blankenship, Jenkins held a morning campaign event at a memorial for coal workers. At one point, he noted that one of his great grandfathers died in a mine explosion.
“The president could not have made it any clearer this morning that Don Blankenship is not the guy to beat Joe Manchin,” Jenkins said.
Morrisey, who spent the day hopscotching across central West Virginia, announced that he’d sent a letter to Blankenship’s parole officer highlighting what he argued was a violation. At one point, he took to Twitter to suggest questions for reporters to ask Blankenship. And he released a digital advertisement unloading on the coal baron, and highlighting his role in the 2010 explosion.
“Families devastated, children left fatherless, wives widowed,” a narrator intoned. Many in the party are skeptical that the 11th-hour offensive will succeed – and, behind the scenes, finger-pointing is underway. Some are pinning the blame on the White House, saying it should have rebuked Blankenship earlier. Others say the fault lies with Jenkins and Morrisey, whose near constant attacks left one another badly damaged and created an opening for Blankenship.
Still others are pinning the blame on McConnell, saying that he should have long ago used his political muscle to clear the primary field and thereby avoid the three-way dynamic that has played to Blankenship’s benefit.
McConnell has privately expressed concern to associates about Blankenship, whom he has long viewed as a serious threat in the contest. A loss for the Senate GOP leader, who hails from a neighboring Appalachian state and has faced withering attacks from Blankenship, would be embarrassing.
Over the weekend, McConnell spoke by phone with the president about the contest. According to a Republican official briefed on the call, Trump informed McConnell that he planned to criticize Blankenship publicly, a step he hadn’t taken previously. Among the issues that arose on the call were Blankenship’s TV ads, some of which have gone after McConnell’s family in deeply personal, racial terms.
White House aides spent part of Friday drafting a tweet targeting Blankenship. Then, on Monday, the president hit send.
“To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference,” he wrote. “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State…No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!”
For Blankenship, who has tied himself closely to the president and on Monday declared himself “Trumpier than Trump,” the attack could have stung. Yet as the race came to a close, Blankenship seemed unbothered.
Speaking to reporters after touring a freight shipping office here, Blankenship said he placed no stock in the president’s tweet. It was McConnell, Blankenship said, who convinced Trump to weigh in. After Tuesday, Blankenship added, the president would be embarrassed he followed McConnell’s lead.
“It’s obvious that the president is suffering from the same thing that many in the public do, which is misinformation and untruths,” Blankenship said. “The lesson that will be learned here when I win is that you shouldn’t blindly endorse or cast doubts or favoritism unless you actually look at their record and not depend on the people in that swamp that you’re trying to drain.”
At times, Blankenship seemed to take pleasure in his recalcitrance. He refused to commit to endorsing his primary rivals should they win, which he said wouldn’t happen, anyway. He wouldn’t apologize for running TV ads lambasting McConnell’s “China family.” And he reiterated that he wouldn’t vote for McConnell to serve as Senate GOP leader.
At one point, Blankenship noted that he’d been disrespected at other times in his career. The Marshall University-educated businessman noted that he’d grown up poor before becoming a multimillionaire, and recalled one episode in which he easily passed a CPA exam that Ivy Leaguers he knew had struggled with.
Now, he said, he was confronting another kind of establishment.
“I’ve been underestimated,” he said, “all my life.”