The GOP Candidate Testing the Limits of Trumpism

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Don Blankenship at a town-hall meeting in Bluefield, West Virginia, on May 3, 2018. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

The ad that tells you all you need to know about Don Blankenship’s renegade U.S. Senate campaign has the distinct amateur look and sound of the kind of furniture-outlet promotion you’ll invariably stumble across if you watch enough local news. But it gets a job done: Over the course of one clumsy minute, the spot neatly traces Blankenship’s path from infamous villain clawing to reclaim scraps of his reputation to semi-viable GOP candidate.

First, the clip, which is set entirely within a kitchen: “Did you know Don Blankenship’s trial was not about the mine explosion?” a woman asks a man, apparently feeling no need to provide any context. Everyone in West Virginia knows the story of 2010’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that killed 29 miners, setting off a saga that landed Blankenship — the mining company’s CEO, and perhaps the state’s most-hated man at the time — in jail for a year. Six seconds into the video, it’s already clear to viewers that they’ll be treated to part of Blankenship’s preferred, and rarely supported, version of the story — in which he’s a victim of Democratic overreach, despite having eventually been found guilty of a misdemeanor conspiracy to willfully violate mine-safety standards.

“Really? You sure?” the man responds, perplexed. “Oh, yeah, the Obama judge wouldn’t even let Don mention the explosion, and the Obama prosecutors knew Don had nothing to do with the explosion,” the woman insists, prompting her interlocutor to ask the obvious question: “Then what was the trial about?” Looking disappointed, she explains, “Mostly about a letter Don didn’t even write.” That information is just too much for the man to take. He explodes with an incredulous, “Obama prosecutors tried to put Blankenship in prison for life for a letter he didn’t even write?!”

The video continues in this vein — complete with a flashing line of text reading “Blankenship Innocent” at one point — before tying a bow on itself. “West Virginians knew that Obama was against them and coal. Now they understand what happened when Don fought back,” intones the man, newly earnest and now thoroughly convinced. “I’m voting for Don,” the woman offers. “Now that I know the whole truth,” he replies, raising his mug and smiling before sipping, “Me too.”

The ad organically captures how Blankenship’s longtime personal-reputation rehab project has morphed into a full-fledged political campaign. Not quite explicit in the ad, but known to many West Virginians, is that Blankenship blames Democratic senator Joe Manchin, the governor at the time of the explosion, as much as he blames Obama for the “conspiracy” against him — and that’s exactly whose U.S. Senate seat he wants in November. But even more than other recent Trumpist candidates with a disregard for political convention and the basic rules of factual representation (see Alabama’s Roy Moore), Blankenship is now testing the outer edges of Republican voters’ openness to a right-wing, bombastic populist whose past would be disqualifying under the old rules. Blankenship’s rise to electoral threat status has been packed with lessons about just what kind of figure can attract a following in today’s Republican Party, and what the party Establishment can do to effectively set the limits of personal celebrity, conspiracy theorizing, and anti–status quo rage even in the heart of Trump country.

Democrats and Establishment Republicans in Washington alike regard the self-funding coal executive as an unhinged figure whose thirst for revenge against Manchin could, if he prevails in the GOP primary, almost certainly hand the most conservative Democrat in D.C. another term in the Senate. Blankenship’s two primary competitors, Representative Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, have more or less ignored him in the past few weeks. Recent polling shows them slightly ahead: a late April Fox News survey has Blankenship at 16 percent of the GOP primary electorate, compared to Jenkins’s 25 percent and Morrisey’s 21 percent.

Blankenship — whose time in prison was punishment for the latest in a long line of violations, including accusations of poisoning drinking water and forcing employees to underreport their injuries — had been trying to salvage his brand for years. In 2014, he posted a 51-minute video to YouTube offering his own explanation for the explosion (which clashes with official reports). In October of 2016, while incarcerated, he had 250,000 copies of a 67-page pamphlet called “An American Political Prisoner” printed and distributed, laying further groundwork for his contention that he’s a victim of Obama administration judicial warfare.

As the midterms approached, Blankenship’s opportunity to intensify his budding SEO-whitewash strategy became obvious: by running for office in this hypercharged political moment, he would clearly get more national attention — giving him a huge platform for disseminating his counter-narrative and burying all the old news stories about his conviction on Google. It couldn’t hurt that ad rates are cheaper for federal candidates, allowing him an even bigger bang for his considerable buck.

So he formally became a candidate, and the effort ratcheted up further: at events, he took to rolling out character witnesses and describing the charitable work that Massey, his company, used to do.

He’s run ads claiming, against the available evidence, that the explosion was Obama administration regulators’ fault. And even the bio section of his campaign website begins: “Over the past 30 years, I have been threatened with death several times: had urine thrown on me: had eleven bullet holes shot into my office: had two cars smashed with ball bats and clubs while I was in them: been continually lied about: been the subject of several false books: been branded with multiple derogatory names: been sued numerous times: been slandered on national television many times: been subjected to continued ridicule by newspapers: been falsely accused of causing the Upper Big Branch (UBB) tragedy: been falsely arrested: endured a trial where I faced 30 years in prison for made up charges, and been put in federal prison for a misdemeanor.”

The push worked. Whereas a 2016 survey of the state pegged his favorability rating at just 10 percent — and found that six in ten West Virginians thought he should have been jailed for longer — polls eventually started to show Blankenship neck and neck with Jenkins and Morrisey. As he gained traction with the public, he broadened his ambitions beyond cleanup duty.

“Blankenship started out several months ago by relitigating the cause of [the mine disaster] and his legal battles, but we have not heard as much about that in recent weeks,” explained Hoppy Kercheval, West Virginia’s most influential radio host. Recently, Blankenship started to turn his sights more directly to the man he believes holds nearly as much responsibility as Obama. While Manchin has almost entirely ignored his candidacy in public, Blankenship has paid for ads comparing the disaster to Benghazi and calling it “Obama’s deadliest cover-up.” The campaign is titled, “Does Senator Joe Manchin Have Blood on His Hands?”

His focus on Manchin is second only to his fixation on the Republican leadership, a hypercharged version of the line pushed by GOP agitators in primaries all over the country.

“Blankenship was a ‘drain the swamp’ guy before Trump, frankly. He might be the most anti-Establishment candidate in any race anywhere,” said Kercheval.

Asked during a candidate debate on Tuesday night if they would support Mitch McConnell as Republicans’ Senate leader, both Jenkins and Morrisey declined. Blankenship, typically, went further, theatrically ducking behind his lectern. (He’d tried wearing a bright-red hat inscribed with “DITCH MITCH” to the debate, before the forum’s organizers, Fox News, nixed the stunt.) That was mild compared to his other recent McConnell agitations: He’s compared the leader to Russians because of his involvement in a race outside of his jurisdiction, and in a recent ad Blankenship refers to him as “Cocaine Mitch,” an apparent reference to drugs found on a ship tied to McConnell’s wife’s family company.

But when Blankenship started turning his fire on McConnell, the Establishment struck back. Operatives reportedly tied to GOP leaders began running ads under the cloak of the newly created “Mountain Families PAC” — which doesn’t have to disclose its donors — accusing him of contaminating West Virginians’ drinking water. The push to sideline Blankenship even reached the White House, which Republicans acknowledge has now begun working more closely with Senate leadership ahead of the midterms: At an official White House event in West Virginia last month, Trump sat between Jenkins and Morrisey, but Blankenship was nowhere to be seen. On Thursday, Donald Trump Jr. chimed in on Twitter: “I hate to lose. So I’m gonna go out on a limb here and ask the people of West Virginia to make a wise decision and reject Blankenship! No more fumbles like Alabama. We need to win in November.”

The message was sent: Blankenship had taken his version of Trumpism too far, and his standing slipped. That, in turn, has led to even louder and wilder noises from the mustachioed Blankenship, his apparent bet that fire and fury may be enough.

After the New York Times reported that Blankenship’s primary residence is outside of Las Vegas, noted his onetime interest in Chinese citizenship, and pointed out that he has yet to file a required financial disclosure, his response stuck to the tried-and-true line of Trump-style media-bashing: “The reporter is clearly a communist propagandist with no American values, whatsoever. Much of what he says is filled with outright lies and nearly all of the rest is simply misrepresentation,” Blankenship said in a statement. “It would be too kind to call his article fake news. It is communist propaganda.”

And after he was asked on the debate stage whether his characterization of the father of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, as a “Chinaperson” was offensive, he framed his response as a Make America Great Again campaign-style riff on political correctness. “I mean, I’m an Americanperson. I don’t see this insinuation by the press that there’s something racist about saying ‘Chinaperson,’” he said. “Some people are Koreapersons. Some of them are Africanpersons. It’s not any slander here.”

(Asked about Blankenship’s strategy before the debate, Scott Jennings — a Republican operative close to McConnell — responded, “All anybody’s talking about here is what he said about Elaine Chao,” pointing out the political folly of attacking a Trump Cabinet member in a state the president won by 42 points in 2016.)

Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that Blankenship would aim to turn the conversation back to his own plight, returning to the original fuel for his rise.

Asked if Trump should be able to fire Robert Mueller, the coal baron answered third on the debate stage. After sitting through Morrisey’s, and then Jenkins’s, answers, he responded: “Well, you know, I’ve had a little personal experience with the Department of Justice.”

The audience laughed.

The GOP Candidate Testing the Limits of Trumpism