Don Blankenship

West Virginia Senate: The Bizarre Candidacy of Don Blankenship

So, a first-time candidate files for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia. The most recent entries on his resume include serving a year-long prison term that ended just seven months ago and currently being under court-supervised release … in Nevada. This kind of candidate would be put on the At-A-Glance list, dismissed as a non-factor, and quickly forgotten. That is, unless that candidate is former Massey Energy chief executive officer Don Blankenship, who is well known to West Virginia voters and has a net worth estimated to be about $45 million.

There is little doubt that Blankenship would like to see Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin defeated next November. What is less clear, though, is whether winning the GOP nomination is his first priority or even his reason for getting into the race. Instead, there are signs that Blankenship may well be running a campaign of redemption in an effort to clear his name after what he believes was a wrongful conviction. He does believe that Manchin had a role in the “conspiracy” that led to his conviction, and thus a Senate race against Manchin provides him with a platform from which to air his grievances.

Blankenship, 67, is a certified public accountant by training. In 1982, he joined a subsidiary of Massey Energy, rising through the corporate ranks to become the CEO in 2000. He retired at the end of 2010 after a very rough year for the company that resulted in a federal indictment against Blankenship.

The root cause of Blankenship’s troubles was the April 5, 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 of the 31 miners working then and became the worst mine disaster in 40 years. Among the fallout from the explosion was an indictment that charged Blankenship with lying about safety procedures at the mine, one charge of securities fraud and a charge of making false statements to the United States Securities and Exchange Commission.

On December 3, 2015, Blankenship was acquitted of the more serious felony charges, but found guilty of one misdemeanor charge of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety and health standards. On April 6, 2016, he was sentenced to one year in custody and one year of supervised release, as well as a fine of $250,000. This was the maximum sentence allowed. He served his term at a federal correctional facility north of Los Angeles, California. He was released from custody on May 10, 2017, and returned to West Virginia to begin his supervised release (a.k.a. probation).

On September 6, 2017, the federal court for the Southern District of West Virginia agreed to Blankenship’s request for a transfer of jurisdiction for his supervised release to Nevada. According to court documents, Blankenship stated that he intended to make Nevada his primary domicile and had purchased a home in Las Vegas. According to the Clark County Assessor’s Office, Blankenship purchased a five-bedroom home in Henderson in April of 2016. On October 20, 2017, the U.S. District Court in Nevada accepted the transfer of jurisdiction. And, just 41 days later on November 29, Blankenship filed a committee with the Federal Election Commission to run for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in West Virginia. While it is clear that Blankenship owns property in Nevada, it is not known whether he ever made the state his primary residence as he told the court he would.

Under the terms of his supervised release, Blankenship can only travel outside of the “judicial district” (e.g., the state of Nevada) with the permission of either the court or his probation officer. Both entities have a lot of discretion on whether to permit such travel and the duration of those trips. Barring a lenient probation officer or judge, Blankenship may be sequestered in Nevada until May 10 of next year. Coincidently, this would be two days after the May 8 primary.

Blankenship doesn’t believe there ever should have been an indictment much less a conviction. Once he was convicted, he declared himself to be a political prisoner and a victim of a government conspiracy. He has documented his allegations in a 67-page booklet where he claims that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is actually responsible the explosion because it reduced the air-flow ventilation in the mine. Blankenship also believes that the jury pool was biased against him and that the judge’s rulings during the trial were unfair and designed to harm his defense.

Since his release from prison, Blankenship has stepped up his campaign to clear his name. Beginning in mid-August, he has aired a series of television ads that lay out his case that the government conspired against him. Manchin is featured in each ad, usually in a clip in which he makes a statement about having a good working relationship with the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Between August 19 and November 17, Blankenship ran eight different television ads across the state’s media markets for a total spot count of 2,574, according to Kantar Media/CMAG. Given that Blankenship did not have a campaign committee until November 29, the disclaimer on the ads read “Paid for by Don Blankenship.”

Now a candidate, Blankenship aired his first television ad of the campaign yesterday. It looks a lot like his earlier spots and lays out a very similar case. While these ads aren’t the slickest or of the highest production value, they will play a starring role in the campaign, particularly if Blankenship is rarely (or never) in West Virginia during the primary campaign.

MSHA Scandal Ad - Website Version from Donald Blankenship on Vimeo.

Blankenship seemed determined to focus his campaign on the issues stemming from his conviction and little else. In that respect, he poses little threat to the two announced candidates who have been in the race for months: U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. At the same time, Blankenship’s personal wealth will make his television blitzes something more than background noise. Still, if he becomes a threat, he is an opposition researcher’s dream. There are accounts of abusive behavior toward employees and one incident in which he discovered that Massey Energy’s coal slurry had polluted the ground water near his home. He paid to have a water line installed to connect his house to the water supply in a neighboring town. He never told his neighbors about the ground water contamination.

While Blankenship’s entry into the primary isn’t exactly good news for Republicans, one GOP strategist pointed out that the one positive thing about his candidacy is that he will spend the next six months attacking Manchin, which can only help the eventual Republican nominee at no cost to that nominee or to the party.

Blankenship will no doubt attract his share of media attention, but he will always be referred to as “Convicted ex-coal executive ….” Even in an era of inappropriate Presidential tweets and one in which Alabama’s Roy Moore remains a viable candidate, no candidate wants that moniker.