Reporter’s Notebook: The specter of Blankenship

We’re all waiting with anticipation, for as soon as tomorrow U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin might decide to hang up his congressional hat and try for a third term as governor of the great State of West Virginia. But Manchin’s decision might trigger the entrance of an unlikely candidate in the May 2020 Democratic primary:

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

But wait, you’re asking. Isn’t Don Blankenship a life-long conservative more closely associated with the Republican Party? Wasn’t he one of the largest party benefactors during the first decade of the 2000s, even buying the party a headquarters at one point?

First of all, don’t forget that Blankenship, after losing the Republican Primary for U.S. Senate in 2018 to state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, became the Constitution Party candidate for U.S. Senate in the general election (until the courts ruled he was in violation of the state’s Sore Loser law that prevents a loser for one party’s primary from jumping parties to keep running).

Still, you can at least argue that the Constitution Party has conservative leanings. While there are such things as conservative Democrats in West Virginia, most of your party stalwarts lean moderate to liberal. If you were to put state Democratic Party leaders and Blankenship in a room, I imagine Blankenship would be in a corner nursing a drink and ignored by the other party attendees.

But Blankenship did switch his registration to Democrat on April 23 according to the Secretary of State’s Office. To make things more interesting, Brad McElhinny of WV MetroNews was able to figure out that April 23 was the same day Manchin went on Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval and hinted of a possible run for governor. I can’t tell you how soon he will get in, but I can safely assume it will be sometime after Manchin says yes.

Why on Earth would he do this again? First, if Blankenship is Ahab, then Manchin is the white whale. I don’t know if Blankenship thinks he can win a Democratic primary, but if he can hurt Manchin, take votes from Manchin, or make Manchin spend more, that’s probably enough. They’ve been political adversaries for well over 15 years, but it’s only been in the last two year that Blankenship has stepped out from behind the curtain.

The second reason: Blankenship is still trying to clear his name after his misdemeanor conviction for violating federal mine safety regulations. At the end of August, a federal magistrate recommended that the conviction — that caused him to spend one year in prison — be thrown out since federal prosecutors didn’t share all of their documents during discovery. It takes U.S. District Judge Irene Berger to agree and if she doesn’t, you best believe he will appeal.

So, with that potentially good news for Blankenship, why would running for office clear his name? It won’t, but he thinks much of what has happened to him — from his conviction to his primary loss in the U.S. Senate race — has been a conspiracy. Some of it may well have been. It was apparent that bias played a role in his prosecution. It was the case that was supposed to propel former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin to the governor’s desk. It didn’t.

But Blankenship also holds President Donald Trump and his family, as well as U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for his loss. Blankenship believes that they conspired to make the voting public think he was convicted of a felony, which turned the public against him closer to the election.

I’m here to tell you Don, you didn’t have the best reputation with the public before your misdemeanor conviction or your indictment. The public at large didn’t have the best perception of Blankenship even before 29 miners died in the preventable Upper Big Branch Explosion (Blankenship thinks it was an act of God that destroyed the mine. That doesn’t explain the lack of rock dusting, or dull bits on the continuous miner or clogged water sprayers).

As near as I can tell, before UBB Blankenship cultivated a bad boy image. He was the guy unafraid to stand up to unions or environmentalists. One could say he was trolling long before that became the go-to name for people who purposely provoke others via the internet. Blankenship was a proto-Trump.

Blankenship only carried 20 percent of the vote in the Republican U.S. Senate primary in 2018, compared to Morrisey’s 35 percent and former U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins (now a state supreme court justice) with 29 percent. Blankenship only won four counties, including his native Mingo County.

Could Blankenship give Manchin a run for his money? Maybe. He could also be no more than an annoyance. There is a third option: some of the anti-Justice Republican operatives could be pushing Blankenship to run.

That’s a bit conspiratorial, but it’s possible a Democratic primary for governor between Manchin and Blankenship could see unaffiliated and independent voters choose a Democratic ballot over a Republican ballot. With a Republican primary with few unaffiliated voters, it could translate into fewer votes for Gov. Jim Justice.

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If Blankenship jumps in the race, what will his version of Karl Rove — Greg Thomas — do? The long-time Republican operative has been a Blankenship friend and advisor for years. He is now on the Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee (and behind their resolution of no confidence in Gov. Justice). He runs the West Virginia Senate’s Republican political action committee. He also ran Blankenship’s U.S. Senate race (at least until Blankenship switched to Constitution Party).

I’m also told he advises former Commerce Department secretary Woody Thrasher’s Republican primary challenge against Justice. Will he also provide behind-the-scenes advice to Blankenship? And what if all these efforts to siphon votes away from Justice cause Democrats to take the governor’s seat and possibly even the state Senate?

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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