Buying his way to the top? Convicted coal baron Don Blankenship is gaining steam in WV Senate race

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Don Blankenship’s checkbook has put him into second place, but polling shows he’s a very polarizing candidate.

Don Blankenship’s United States Senate bid to represent West Virginia is gaining steam. The GOP outsider, who was released from prison last May after serving a year for his role in the death of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine, raised eyebrows and ire when he announced his Senate bid in November 2017.

Yet since then, funded by the millions he’s made in the Appalachian coalfields, Blankenship has attracted a following in the Mountain State. He’s now near the top of the GOP pack, according to a survey by Harper Polling which was commissioned by fellow GOP challenger U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins.

The poll, released in early March, shows Jenkins with 29 percent of the GOP vote and holding only a narrow lead over Blankenship, who garnered 27 percent of GOP voters.

Patrick Morrisey, the current West Virginia Attorney General, came in third with 19 percent of the vote. The rest of the field, Tom Willis, Jack Newbrough and Bo Copley are polling in the single digits.

Blankenship’s emergence as an unlikely frontrunner shakes up a GOP primary race that was long thought to be Jenkins and Morrisey’s to lose in 2018. It is also raising questions if Blankenship is buying his way to the top with his coal-made largesse.

Limited only by his own considerable coffers, Blankenship has been self-funding and running non-stop ads targeting his opponents, namely Morrisey.

In an ad that aired right before the poll came out, Blankenship pointed out Morrisey’s wife Denise Henry Morrisey’s Washington, D.C. lobby firm was paid $460,000 to lobby on behalf of Planned Parenthood, a fact backed up by a recent Charleston Gazette-Mail report.

“[Morrisey’s] wife’s firm received hundreds of thousands of dollars to lobby for Planned Parenthood, the same Planned Parenthood that has slaughtered millions of unborn babies,” the narrator says before noting Blankenship has donated “hundreds of thousands to right to life” causes.

Morrisey responded by attacking his opponent’s credibility and defending his pro-life record.

“While my opponents, who lack credibility on life issues, try to distort my pro-life record, people know the truth,” Morrisey tweeted in response. “I’m the only one endorsed by West Virginians for Life & only one who has consistently gone after Planned Parenthood & opposed taxpayer funding of abortion.”

He also insists he is still in it to win it, claiming with eight weeks to go, “we continue to gain momentum.”

However, Morrisey’s social media messaging seemed to be little match for Blankenship’s relentless attacks on his pro-life stance and ties to the drug industry. Shortly after the ad aired, Morrisey’s popularity in the state began to deflate.

Jenkins now says he’s in a two-way race with Blankenship.

“This race is now very different than what people expected,” fellow GOP candidate Jenkins said, according to the Wheeling Intelligencer, reflecting on the poll. “There are several candidates on the ballot vying for the Republican nomination to face Joe Manchin this fall. Don Blankenship has put almost $1.8 million into an aggressive TV advertising campaign so far.”

Jenkins also noted that while Blankenship’s money might give him an advantage now, it doesn’t guarantee him a win in May.

“Don’s checkbook has put him into second place, but polling shows he’s a very polarizing candidate,” Jenkins stressed.

Blankenship has responded to his surge with even more aggressive ads, the latest targeting frontrunner Jenkins’ first television spot. The ad oddly seems to poke fun at the Congressman’s upbeat attitude.

“Evan has a great smile and a great life,” Blankenship says in the press release accompanying the radio ad. “My goal is for all West Virginians to have the same.”

The ad itself, devoid of any real dirt, notes West Virginians should be angry because of all the problems in Jenkins’ district that makes it “not almost heaven” for most who live in the southern part of the state.

Jenkins said he expects the negative ads from Blankenship to continue until the end of the primary but still thinks he will win and as voters “see through the mudslinging.”

Blankenship, who is still on federal probation, is likewise confident his bare bones, ad-heavy tactics will work and has continued to blast television and radio ads across the state which, according to his campaign manager, are actually trying to get out a “positive message.”

Pundits are also not so sure Blankenship’s wealthy outsider strategy is such a bad bet for Blankenship.

“He’s a big personality. He’s a big name. He’s certainly well-funded and has a lot to say,” a West Virginia GOP strategist told The Hill about the now-competitive candidate.