The ex-con coal executive the GOP fears could be their nominee in West Virginia Senate race

GOP fears this man could be Senate nominee
GOP fears this man could be Senate nominee

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Beckley, West Virginia (CNN)Watching Republican Senate candidate Don Blankenship on the campaign trail, he does not immediately come across as someone his party leaders would be concerned about.

He is soft spoken and lacks the charisma of even the most remotely formidable political figures. Yet beneath this low-key exterior is a candidate with a controversial history in West Virginia.
Blankenship, a coal baron, was just released from prison last May after serving a year sentence following his misdemeanor conviction for his involvement in the deadliest US mine explosion in four decades.
On the campaign trail, he has compared Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to the Russians and accused McConnell of being soft on China because his father-in-law is a "wealthy China person."
    A recent poll shows that Blankenship — who is campaigning on the same themes President Donald Trump did in 2016 when he won the state by 42 points — is trailing two other candidates in a three-way primary race.
    All of this has national Republicans who are clinging to their narrow Senate majority terrified that Blankenship will win the GOP primary here because that could mean losing an opportunity in November's midterms to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the Senate's most vulnerable Democrats.
    "They don't really believe that," Blankenship said of GOP warnings that having him as their nominee would blow their chances of winning the Senate seat here.
    "That's what they're telling you so you'll tell the public that. What they believe is I'm gonna win. They don't want me to be there because they know I'm a extreme Trump supporter and that we have to make a change, and that they don't want that change to be made because they're personally benefiting from it," Blankenship told CNN.
    He may not be the showman that Trump is, but Blankenship is a wealthy businessman whose message is Trump 2016 on steroids.
    "You cannot continue to give American jobs to illegal immigrants. You cannot continue to drive all of the manufacturing jobs out of this country to Asia and pollute the world much more if those jobs and manufacturing facilities had stayed here," he argues.
    The president is still very popular here, and it's why all six candidates vying for the GOP Senate nomination are tripping over themselves to align themselves with his agenda.
    During a debate in Wheeling this week, the moderator began to ask whether there is anything they disagree with the President about, and one candidate, Jack Newbrough, screamed "no" before the question was even fully asked.
    But if Blankenship sounds the most well-versed in Trumpism, it's because he has been espousing a more populist GOP approach for years. He even took out his phone and showed us a video he had made in 2012 in order to try to convince the Koch brothers to sign onto a more isolationist approach for the GOP.
    He chuckled about the fact that the Koch's wouldn't go for it, but then Trump won the presidency with the same message.

    Disdain for Republican leaders

    Another similarity between Blankenship and the President is his disdainful rhetoric about GOP leaders in Washington. But while Trump's rhetoric sometimes sounds like he's whacking the so-called establishment because it played to his base, Blankenship really seems to mean it.
    This week, Blankenship lobbed a racially charged accusation at McConnell, saying he's soft on China because his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, was born in China and has family business ties there through her father.
    "I have an issue when the father-in-law is a wealthy Chinaperson. There's a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China," Blankenship told West Virginia radio host Dimitri Vassilaros.
    McConnell shot back by saying he has no comment on "ridiculous observations like that."
    "My father-in-law is an American who lives in New York." McConnell told Fox News.
    Longtime McConnell political aide Josh Holmes was less restrained, taking to Twitter to call Blankenship "as contemptible a human being as you will find."
    Blankenship released a statement calling Holmes one of "D.C. Swamp Captain McConnell's lieutenants"
    "When someone is about to drain the swamp, all sides of the establishment unify to keep the District of Corruption in place," said Blankenship.

    Blankenship's heavy baggage

    Senate Republicans' biggest concern with Blankenship isn't so much the way he rails on them personally and calls them corrupt, but that he recently got out of prison.
    Blankenship was CEO of Massey Energy when the Upper Big Branch Mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 people.
    In 2015, he was convicted conspiracy to violate mine health and safety standards -- a misdemeanor -- and was later sentenced to a year in prison before being released in May of 2017.
    What does he say to voters who believe he has blood on his hands from the mining tragedy?
    "The thing I would say to 'em is, Upper Big Branch deadly explosion is one of the biggest reasons they should vote for me if they're, have family members or are involved in the coal industry. Unlike any other person that I know of, I stood up against the establishment when they falsely claimed that the explosion was caused by the coal miners," he argued.
    Blankenship insists the mine exploded because of federal regulators.
    "These miners have had 400 years of experience and they were forced to change the ventilation by a guy that was hardly old enough to shave, and by God, that has got to stop," he said.
    He also argues that he was not given a fair shake in court — set up by Democratic-backed judges and politicians like the Democratic Senator he wants to unseat, Joe Manchin.
    Blankenship even wrote a short book while in jail, which he and aides hand out at campaign events, called "An American Political Prisoner."
    "I prepared and distributed this booklet in order to reveal that our justice system is broken and how our government has not told the truth about the West Virginia coal mine explosion that it may have caused," he wrote in the introduction.
    Flipping through the book, we asked if this was his manifesto.
    "I don't know if manifesto has a negative tone or not. It sounds like it does since some of the really bad guys had manifestos," Blankenship responded.
    "I would describe it as a common sense explanation that I was a political prisoner," he added.
    Sen. Manchin's wife, who attended a Chamber of Commerce candidate breakfast here, calls that laughable.
    "Don Blankenship is not a victim," Gayle Manchin told us flatly.

    Getting hit from both sides

    A Fox News poll out this week shows Blankenship trailing two other Republican candidates ahead of the May 8 primary, Evan Jenkins and Patrick Morrisey, both of whom GOP leaders think have a good shot at beating Manchin.
    While Blankenship is reaching into his deep pockets to run ads trying to reintroduce himself to West Virginia Republican voters, he is up against a tough ad paid for by the Mountain Families PAC, which has ties to the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, the same that spent millions in Alabama's GOP primary last year in an unsuccessful attempt to keep Roy Moore from being the Republican nominee.
    The ad accuses "convicted criminal Don Blankenship" of getting caught with his company "pumping 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry contaminating water supplies."
    "Don Blankenship has 91% name recognition in West Virginia," he shot back, speaking of himself in the third person.
    "People that know Don Blankenship will vote for him in huge numbers. And that all I have to do is get better and better known as well as point out to things that Joe Manchin has not done that he should have done. He's been in office for 36 years and we're last in every good category and first in every bad one."

    The field

    Some Democrats worried about Manchin's ability to keep his seat are jumping into the GOP primary race as well.
    They, too, see Blankenship as the most beatable Republican, and are therefore, trying to help him in the GOP primary with ads tearing down Jenkins and Morrisey, two leading GOP candidates Democrats consider bigger threats to Manchin.
    Morrisey is the state's Attorney General and the only candidate who has won a statewide race.
    "I'm not nervous about Don winning. I think we have the best, the most proven, conservative record out there," Morrisey told us.
    GOP Congressman Evan Jenkins was a Democrat until 2013, when he switched parties to run against an incumbent Democratic congressman.
    He is slightly ahead in the latest polls, and insists Republican voters won't hold it against him that he was a Democrat until 5 years ago.
    "I've always been conservative. I've always been a believer in our values as West Virginians. Staunchly pro-life, 100% voting record with the national right to life. Staunch defender of the second amendment. 100% voting record with the NRA. My values haven't changed," Jenkins said in an interview.
    This is the first time Blankenship is on the ballot, but he spent years using his millions of considerable wealth to help build the West Virginia Republican Party, which he says gives him goodwill with GOP voters.
    How much of his own money is he planning to spend to win this Senate GOP primary?
    "I don't really know because I'm not keeping track of it," he said. "If I started keeping track, I'd probably stop. So I better wait until after May 8th to figure it out."