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GOP leaders fear Alabama-style debacle in West Virginia U.S. Senate primary

A win by jailed former mine operator Don Blankenship could ensure Democrat Joe Manchin’s re-election

♦By Rich Shumate, editor

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (CFP) — Republican party leaders in West Virginia are bracing for the possibility that a coal mine owner who went to prison after 29 of his workers were killed by an explosion in an unsafe mine might end up as their nominee for the U.S. Senate, handing the seat to Democrats in November.

Don Blankenship

Heading into Tuesday’s primary, polls showed no clear leader in the GOP Senate race between Don Blankenship, U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who are all vying for the right to take on Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin in November.

Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, spent a year in prison for willfully violating mine safety laws after a 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal killed 29 miners, the deadliest mine accident in the United States in 40 years.

GOP leaders have become alarmed at the possibility that they will be saddled with a flawed candidate and lose a winnable Senate race, a point President Donald Trump made in an election-eve tweet: “Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!”

Trump’s reference was to the race for an open Senate seat in Alabama, where Democrat Doug Jones pulled off an upset in December after the Republican nominee, Roy Moore, was accused of sexually pursuing young girls, a charge he denied.

With Republicans clinging to a one-seat majority, the race in West Virginia — which Trump won by a stunning 42 points in 2016 — presents a prime pickup opportunity that could vanish with a Blankenship victory.

Blankenship, 68, has maintained that he is innocent of the charges brought against him for the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, blaming the disaster instead on federal mine inspectors. He has poured at least $3.5 million of his own money into his Senate campaign, trying to brand himself as an anti-establishment outsider.

Among Blankenship’s targets has been the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. In one ad, he calls McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” a spurious charge based on a report that cocaine had been found on a ship belonging to a shipping company owned by the family of McConnell’s Chinese-American wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Although McConnell and his wife own stock in the shipping company, there is no evidence either of them or their families members had any connection with the cocaine shipment.

Until Blankenship began rising in the polls, Jenkins and Morrisey had mostly turned their fire on each other. The question now is whether either one of them will be able to defeat Blankenship and preserve Republican hopes in November.

West Virginia does not have primary runoffs, so whichever candidate wins a plurality Tuesday will get the nomination.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia

Manchin, 70, is seeking a second full term in the Senate. Despite being a former two-term governor and serving in statewide office since 2001, Manchin is considered among the most vulnerable Democratic senators in the 2018 cycle because of the size of Trump’s win in 2016.

Jenkins, 57, was elected to represent the state’s 3rd District in 2014 after toppling then-U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democratic titan who had served 19 terms in Congress.

Morrisey, 50, was first elected attorney general in 2012, the first Republican to hold that post in nearly 70 years. A native of New Jersey who ran for Congress from that state in 2000, Morrisey moved in 2006 to Jefferson County, a county in the West Virginia panhandle which is part of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

Also on the primary ballot are races in the the 3rd District, which takes in the lower third of the state. Seven Republicans, including four current or former state House members, are vying for the nomination to succeed Jenkins, with House Majority Whip Carol Miller of Crab Orchard establishing a strong fundraising advantage.

The likely Democratic nominee is populist State Senator Richard Ojeda, an Iraq war veteran who may be the best hope Democrats have for winning a House seat in the Mountaineer State in 2018.

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