By JOHN RABY and CATHERINE LUCEY, Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A defiant Don Blankenship fired back Monday after President Donald Trump urged West Virginia voters to support opponents of the former coal executive — and former convict — in the Republican U.S. Senate primary.
Blankenship said in a statement: “I will win the primary and I will beat Joe Manchin. Neither of my opponents can beat Joe Manchin without my support, but I will beat Joe Manchin even without the support of the establishment.”
Trump tweeted earlier Monday that Blankenship would lose the general election to Manchin, the Democratic incumbent senator.
The stakes are high for a Republican Party bracing for major losses in this fall’s midterm elections. A victory Tuesday for Blankenship — who was in prison a year ago —could cost Republicans a Senate seat come November. But the anti-establishment fervor unleashed by Trump’s 2016 campaign has proved difficult for GOP leaders to rein in.
Blankenship is among six GOP candidates in Tuesday’s primary. Others include two-term U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
“To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State…No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!”
Trump cited Alabama Republican Roy Moore, who lost a special Senate election after allegations of past sexual misconduct. Trump had endorsed Moore in that race.
The 68-year-old Blankenship, former CEO at Massey Energy, served a one-year prison term on a misdemeanor conviction for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners were killed in a 2010 explosion. Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of his release from a California prison. He filed Senate candidacy papers late last year.
Blankenship has taken aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with racially charged accusations of corruption. He responded that Trump doesn’t know him and “the establishment is misinforming him because they do not want me to be in the US Senate and promote the president’s agenda.”
He added, “As some have said, I am Trumpier than Trump and this morning proves it.”
Blankenship also touted his millions of dollars in contributions to past Republican campaigns in the state, including spending $3.4 million to help elect the first Republican to the state Supreme Court in 2004.
“West Virginia voters should remember that my enemies are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and my opponents would not even be running as Republicans had I not resurrected the Republican Party in West Virginia,” Blankenship said.
West Virginia gave Donald Trump his largest margin of victory in the nation in 2016. Republicans make up just 32 percent of registered voters in West Virginia, yet in 2014 the state flipped the majority in the Legislature to the GOP for the first time in more than eight decades. Republicans hold five of the six statewide offices, including governor.
U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Monday on “Fox and Friends” that the president’s tweet against Blankenship is meant to avoid internal battles among Republicans and “find the very best person” in West Virginia to challenge Manchin.
“What the president is saying is let’s help this country,” McCarthy said. “Let’s put America first, find the very best person in West Virginia and not have a situation where we can’t even compete in November.”
Jenkins said he’s honored that “President Trump gave us a wonderful shout-out,” while Morrisey said he hopes voters “will listen to President Trump when they go to the polls.”
On Sunday, Morrisey said Blankenship’s failure to file a personal financial disclosure form violates the Ethics in Government Act. Morrisey said he plans to forward information to Blankenship’s probation officer to determine whether it’s a violation of Blankenship’s supervised release.
U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart in Charleston said his office has no information regarding Morrisey’s claim, “but this would not be a violation of his release. We do not intend to dedicate any resources to this matter.”
Blankenship campaign spokesman Greg Thomas said the candidate is “in the process” of filing the paperwork and has sent notification it would be late. Thomas said Blankenship’s form is complicated.
Lucey reported from Washington, D.C.