West Virginia Senate: Primary Mischief

As the May 8 primary approaches, the Republican contest has devolved into a fight over which candidate is the most conservative as concerns grow that the party might be on its way to nominating the least electable candidate.

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and three minor candidates are vying for the nomination. When the primary started, Morrisey set out to establish himself as the Trump conservative in the race and attacked Jenkins as the unacceptable “liberal.” Jenkins touted his own conservative credentials, pointing to his congressional record. Then there is Blankenship, who initially seemed to be running to avenge his conviction on a misdemeanor that earned him a year in federal prison. More recently, he has become a more serious candidate, portraying himself as the conservative outsider and labeling both Morrisey and Jenkins as part of the ‘swamp.”

While Blankenship has personal wealth that he has used to fuel his campaign, he is a problematic general election candidate. That he has been on the air longer than any other candidate and seems to be gaining a little momentum has become a cause for concern for GOP strategists. If Republicans are concerned, Democrats see an opportunity and have made an initial foray into the GOP race.

The root cause of Blankenship’s conviction 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. He 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 and sentenced to one year in custody and one year of supervised release, as well as a fine of $250,000.

And yet, GOP strategists say that Blankenship’s problems as a candidate reach beyond his conviction. There are accounts of abusive behavior toward employees and one incident in which he discovered that Massey Energy’s coal slurry had polluted the groundwater 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 groundwater contamination.

This last incident is mentioned in a television ad aired by the Mountain Families PAC, a super PAC with ties to Washington Republicans. Not coincidently, the spot is titled “Criminal.” It went on the air this week and it’s not clear how long it will stay up or whether there will be more ads.

Blankenship went on the air last August, months before he filed a campaign committee. In total, he has aired 16 different ads with a total spot count of 3,214. The early ads wouldn’t win any awards for their production value and had titles like “Cover Up” and “Enemies.” More recent spots are more professional and more focused on the primary contest. They highlight Blankenship’s status as an outsider and a promise to lower income taxes. The latest ads take aim at Jenkins and Morrisey, calling them “swamp liberals.” Another ad accuses Jenkins of voting to “take away our guns.”

Jenkins has aired six different ads to date for a total spot count of 2,367. The spots have focused on his support for President Trump and his agenda, as well as his perfect score from the NRA. In addition to Blankenship’s attack ads, Jenkins has been on the receiving end of attacks by 35th Inc., a super PAC supporting Morrisey.

Morrisey has aired two different ads for a total spot count of 2,054, the least of the three candidates to date. One opens with an attack on Jenkins, calling him a “liberal” before extolling Morrisey’s virtues. In the second ad, Morrisey recounts his efforts to fight the Obama Administration’s anti-coal policies and promises to take on Washington with a video depicting a West Virginia mountain being dropped on the U.S. Capitol building. He’s gotten some help from Restoration PAC, a super PAC that has aired a positive ad on his behalf.

Democrats, under the guise of the Duty and Country PAC, jumped into the GOP primary yesterday by launching a television spot attacking both Morrisey and Jenkins. A spokesman for the PAC told MetroNews that they are focusing on Morrisey and Jenkins because they appear to be the frontrunners for the nomination. Of course, a negative focus on the “frontrunners” only serves to help Blankenship. But wait, this story gets stranger. The treasurer of the PAC is listed as Booth Goodwin – this would be the same Booth Goodwin, who as the U.S. Attorney for West Virginia prosecuted Blankenship. So now Goodwin is helping the guy he spent a couple of years arguing should go to prison for a very long time. Blankenship’s attorneys filed a motion this week to have his conviction vacated, arguing that federal officials (like the U.S. Attorney) failed to turn over relevant documents that might have helped his case.

So where does the primary stand? It’s hard to tell with the limited polling available. There have been three primary polls that tested all three candidates. An Osage Research survey for the Morrisey campaign (March 13 of 500 registered primary voters) showed Morrisey leading the field with 24 percent, followed by Blankenship with 23 percent, and Jenkins with 17 percent while the minor candidates combined for 4 percent.

A Harper Polling survey for the Jenkins campaign (March 5-6 of 400 registered primary voters) put Jenkins at 29 percent, followed by Blankenship at 27 percent, Morrisey at 19 percent, the minor candidates combining for 10 percent and 15 percent undecided. An earlier Harper poll (February 5-6 of 500 registered primary voters) had Jenkins at 33 percent, Morrisey at 25 percent, Blankenship at 18 percent, minor candidates at 12 percent and 12 percent undecided.

If nothing else, these polls demonstrate why there is growing concern about Blankenship. Apart from that, this seems to be anyone’s game with 18 days to go in the primary race.

While Republicans slug it out, Manchin and Democrats aren’t taking much for granted. Manchin faces a minor primary challenge from environmental activist Paula Sweerengin. He went on the air this week with a spot touting his independence. Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC that supports Senate Democrats, has aired three positive ads that boost Manchin for a total spot count of 1,329.

The outcome of the GOP primary will certainly impact the general election. If Jenkins or Morrisey win the nomination, the race will remain in the Toss Up column. But, it would be hard to justify that rating if Blankenship is the nominee.

Photo: AP Photo/Steve Helber