When Don Blankenship took to the stage hours after polls closed to concede the West Virginia GOP Senate primary in his trademark soft-spoken, monotone cadence, the long exhale coming from Washington could almost be heard here in Charleston.
Republicans who had long worried about the ex-con coal baron’s upstart campaign had dodged what they saw as a significant bullet. A Blankenship win after a race-baiting, conspiracy laden campaign would have been a massive blow to President Donald Trump, who publicly came out against the ex-con coal baron the day before Tuesday’s primary, and Republicans in Washington, DC, some of whom leaned on Trump to weigh into the race.
Republicans watched Blankenship’s candidacy in horror and worried he would imperil any chance they had at defeating vulnerable Democrat Joe Manchin in November.
“We are conceding the election,” Blankenship said bluntly, before reflecting on his run and why people shouldn’t feel sorry for him.
“I feel very good about what I did,” he added, noting that he would soon travel to Paris now that he doesn’t have to run a general election.
Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy who until recently was serving a yearlong sentence for a misdemeanor conviction over his involvement in the deadliest US mine explosion in four decades, spent millions of his own money on the race, going up with television ads even before he was a candidate. According to CNN’s projection, though, Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general, defeated Blankenship to win the party’s nomination.
An adviser close to McConnell watched with glee as Blankenship called the race.
“Obviously the right thing happened here,” the adviser said. “What was proven tonight is Don Blankenship doesn’t have any place in the conservative wing of the Republican Party. He is in a very distant third, where he deserves to be.”
There was no love lost between McConnell and Blankenship.
A McConnell-linked super political action committee spent over $1.3 million in anti-Blankenship ads during the primary, causing the at-times acid tonged coal baron to attack McConnell in personal and biting terms. In a series of ads, Blankenship attacked McConnell’s Chinese in-laws and labeled the powerful Kentucky Republican “Cocaine Mitch” after accusing him of connections to the drug trade.
McConnell’s political account trolled Blankenship on Tuesday night.
“Thanks for playing, @DonBlankenship,” they tweeted with an edited graphic of McConnell surrounded by white powder.
“Suffice it to say,” the adviser said, “he thinks this is the right result.”
Blankenship ran a bizarre campaign for months and that continued into primary day.
The coal baron did not campaign on Tuesday and instead went to a local tailor in Charleston to get fitted for what he called a “general election suit.”
And as the results rolled in on Tuesday – but long before the race had been called – Blankenship took to the stage at his party to deliver some dour results.
“The news so far is not very good,” he told his party, which was half supporters and half reporter. “What we have seen so far is not encouraging. That doesn’t mean it won’t change.”
He added: “At this point, it is not nearly what I would have hoped it would be.”
He also closed his concession speech by urging people to stay and drink the alcohol he had already purchased.
“I have already paid a big bill for y’all,” he said to laughs. “And I am staying upstairs so I don’t have to worry about a DUI or anything.”
Blankenship’s two more establishment opponents – Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins – largely ignored the coal baron after he announced his candidacy last year. But after sustained TV ads and a strong Fox News debate performance, the sense on the ground in West Virginia was that Blankenship was surging.
And the other candidates were feeling it.
“Our polls are close,” Morrisey told CNN on Sunday. “They are showing that Blankenship and I are tied.”
Jenkins also began feeling uncomfortable and organized a press event to slam the candidate on Monday after ignoring him for weeks.
“Everyone knows the Don Blankenship story,” Jenkins said dismissively.
But the surge never came to fruition and Blankenship came up significantly short.
Blankenship struggled to explain why he lost in an interview with CNN at his election night party but did blame a tweet President Donald Trump sent on Monday urging West Virginia voters to reject his candidacy.
“Based on where it is at right now, I think he probably had a pretty significant impact,” he said.
Blankenship also said he would rule out a write in or third party bid if he doesn’t think he could be viable and when asked if a third-place finish in Tuesday night’s Republican Senate primary met that standard, the ex-con coal baron agreed.
“I don’t think I could do enough there to really make a difference,” he said. “Writing in, If I can’t do better than it looks like I am doing so far tonight, I don’t think I can make the difference.”
The night was not all bad for Blankenship, though.
Oddly enough, Blankenship’s probation ended at 12:01 a.m. ET on Wednesday, hours after he ended the race that cost him million.
“I am off of probation tonight at midnight,” the candidate said as the night took a turn. “I get my guns back in a day or two, so I am going to win either way tonight.”