Donald Trump proved the other day that he has learned something from the beating Republicans took in Alabama last year. And he threw yet another bone to the Mitch McConnell wing of the GOP by condemning one of McConnell’s enemies on Twitter.
There is a tight three-way race developing for the GOP senate nomination in West Virginia. One candidate is a controversial standout; his name is Don Blankenship. Aside from his recent theatrics – he called Mitch McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” in a campaign ad, which is as bizarre as it is hilarious – Blankenship has a number of pretty major skeletons in his closet.
For one thing, he was the owner of a mine called Upper Big Branch. In 2010, it exploded. Twenty-nine out of the thirty-one miners working that day were killed. (This was the worst mine disaster in the U.S. since 1970.)
Don Blankenship’s company, Massey Energy, and Blankenship himself, were found guilty of “conspiring to willfully violate safety standards.” Blankenship went to federal prison for a year, with the blood of twenty-nine men on his hands.
Now he wants to be a Senator.
But Trump thinks West Virginians ought to pick somebody else. Yesterday he asked West Virginia voters to pick one of two more conventional candidates in the GOP primary race. This is a smart move.
Although the people of West Virginia swung hard for Trump in 2016, those votes probably sprung from a hatred for the anti-coal, anti-white-working-class Clinton as well. By saying that she would “put a lot of miners out of work” if she were elected, Killary Clinton torpedoed her chances of ever winning West Virginia.
But Joe Manchin, the sitting Democrat Senator who would be going up against the GOP primary winner in November, is not Hillary Clinton. He’s got a long history in West Virginia politics. He was governor there from 2005 to 2010, and he’s been a political moderate since he went to the Senate in 2010.
Manchin is pro-life and pro-gun, didn’t support Obama on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or on the vote for the Dream Act, voted to defund Planned Parenthood in 2015 (though he flip-flopped on that in 2017) and has been a relentless advocate for the people of West Virginia for the last eight years. Sure, he’s got a D next to his name, and that’s probably a liability in Trump Country.
But he knows the people of West Virginia and he’s still fairly popular there. His approval rating as of the first quarter of 2018 was around 43%. Not great, but not devastating either. Joe Manchin isn’t down for the count yet, by any means.
Whichever Republican challenges Manchin, he’ll have to prove he’s willing to fight for West Virginia’s interests and its people. Don Blankenship, a coal-boss who allegedly worked his employees to the bone even before he let almost thirty of them die in an explosion, is not going to be a sympathetic figure to most West Virginians, Republican or otherwise.
That’s not to say the other options are much better. (Although one of them, Evan Jenkins, does look a lot like Dennis Quaid, so that’s something.) But at least none of them ever let their employees die in a tragic accident caused by their sheer negligence.
Trump, by encouraging his loyal supporters to think ahead to the general election, could be making a pivot to the establishment way of doing politics. But a little bit of that may not be bad; he waffled on Luther Strange in Alabama, and got Roy Moore as a result.
Don Blankenship is another Roy Moore. He’s portraying himself as an anti-establishment political outsider who will go to Washington and be a thorn in the side of the corrupt elite. That message will surely, surely resonate with the people of West Virginia, who are sick and tired of the same-old-same-old from DC.
But a good message can’t outweigh a candidate’s sketchy past; the Roy Moore case shows that. And Roy Moore was never even arrested or tried in court for the crimes he allegedly committed. Don Blankenship has been tried and already found guilty. Union workers and coal miners will balk at voting for somebody with his record, and that could sink him in the general.
And on top of that, he’s going up against an opponent who still has real political clout in West Virginia, and who will surely lambaste him for his sordid past. If Blankenship does win the GOP nomination, it’ll be a recipe for another close race that Republicans will ultimately lose.
The President is smart to remind voters that political realities do exist, and that backing a guy like Blankenship is a great way to ensure Joe Manchin stays in the Senate for another six years.