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With the West Virginia primary only three weeks away, the national Republican Party is hoping to avoid in the Mountain State a repeat of the type of loss the party faced in the Alabama special election.
Former coal baron Don Blankenship made national headlines for his conviction for conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards in connection with the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster that left 29 dead. He has now positioned himself into a three-way tie with Congressman Evan Jenkins, and state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey.
Amid fears of a potential political bloodbath if Blankenship wins the primary and runs on the GOP side of the ticket against Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin this November, “Mountain Families PAC,” a super PAC with ties to Washington, D.C., is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising against the former coal company executive.
“Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?” the super PAC’s ad says after connecting Blankenship’s business to contaminated water.
On Monday, Blankenship lashed back at the advertisements in a press release comparing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to Russians interfering in the election.
“The Russians and McConnell should both stop interfering with elections outside their jurisdictions,” Blankenship said in a statement. “McConnell should not be in the U.S. Senate, let alone be the Republican Majority Leader. He is a Swamp captain.”
“The Never Trump movement has turned into the Never Blankenship movement,” the statement said.
McConnell, from the neighboring Appalachian state of Kentucky, has made it clear he’s not a fan of Blankenship’s candidacy. Earlier this year he told he did not want to see Blankenship win the GOP primary. But the national party and even Blankenship’s opponents have up until recently danced around directly going after the former coal baron.
Meanwhile Blankenship, a millionaire, has poured his own money into funding advertisements across the state that showcase him as a “political prisoner,” and defend his association with the biggest mining disaster in 40 years. In attack ads, he’s also taken on Morrissey for his D.C. lobbyist past and Jenkins for once being a Democrat. Both are considered mainstream candidates national Republicans would be comfortable backing — President Trump was even sandwiched between the two at his recent tax roundtable in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.
“People have been burned by bad candidates being nominated and people don’t want to see the same mistakes [in West Virginia],” a national Republican strategist told ABC News. “We see West Virginia as a very good pick up opportunity — Manchin’s approval ratings have been plummeting since Trump and Pence came out against him.”
Blankenship, who has been flying back and forth between his primary residence outside of Las Vegas, Nevada and West Virginia campaign stops around the state, maintains that he’s the one to beat Manchin in November.
“I think just about anyone can beat Manchin, but I will be the one to beat him,” Blankenship told ABC News in a recent interview.
In a state where Trump won by a whopping 42 points against Clinton, Blankenship draws plenty of comparisons to Trump. He calls the media “fake news,” unabashedly flaunts his wealth, and says he wants to turn Washington upside down.
But for many in the state, the memories of the Upper Big Branch explosion are still raw, and Blankenship’s name is forever connected.
When asked by ABC what he would say to people who feel he is responsible, Blankenship talked about the importance of mine safety but then added, “most of what’s said about the explosion, particularly by the media is untrue, and what was said by the government was untrue.”
Blankenship has painted himself as a victim of an Obama administration-led conspiracy against him in an effort to rehabilitate his reputation in connection to Upper Big Branch.
In a statement, Blankenship pushed back against comparisons to controversial figure Roy Moore, who beat out national Republican Party-backed candidate Luther Strange, but then lost to Democrat Doug Jones after Moore was accused of sexual misconduct.
“The media, McConnell and others also like to spread the rumor that my candidacy is akin to that of Roy Moore. This is nonsense,” said Blankenship in a statement. “Roy Moore’s accusers were women and teenage girls. My accusers are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I was imprisoned for a misdemeanor based on false charges and a political prosecution.”