Republicans are targeting the senatorial campaign of a former coal CEO and ex-convict before his bid for congress turns into a populist movement, according to report Sunday from Politico.
A super PAC called “Mountain Families PAC” is airing TV ads targeting Don Blankenship, a West Virginia coal tycoon who spent a year in prison after a 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine. The group is heavily associated with establishment elements inside the Republican Party.
“Mountain Families PAC” is spending nearly $700,000 to air a 30-second commercial accusing Blankenship’s company of pumping “toxic coal slurry” into drinking water. “Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?” the narrator says during one portion of the ad, referring to Blankenship’s campaign for senate in West Virginia.
Blankenship is among the top Republican contenders for Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s Senate seat, according to a March 19 GOP-based poll. His rise in the Republican field comes shortly after he was convicted in 2015 of skirting safety regulations that led to the Upper Branch mine disaster, which killed 29 miners and injured several others.
He is holding his own against Republican opponents Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkins, who commissioned a poll in March showing Blankenship with 27 percent of the vote, just behind the incumbent congressman at 29 percent. Morrisey was in third place with only 19 percent.
Some of Blankenship’s early success can be chalked up to his willingness to blast regulators and Washington, D.C. He’s campaigning on a platform geared around blaming former President Barack Obama’s environmental rules targeting the coal industry.
His message is reaching Republican voters in West Virginia, a state President Donald Trump won by 68 percent. Gwen Skeens, a family member of one of the miners killed in the 2010 explosion, doesn’t hold Blankenship responsible for the disaster and thinks he should be the one to take on Manchin.
“West Virginia needs him,” Skeens said during one of Blankenship’s campaign stops. He is a victim of persecution and a politically motivated prosecution, she added. “The media, [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] and Senator Manchin all know they are misleading the public when they indicate all 29 families have negative feelings towards Don,” Skeens said.
Blankenship’s early success is alarming Republicans, who worry he could taint the party and make it more difficult to beat Manchin, who has castigated Blankenship in the past for his penchant for skirting safety regulations.
Several firms that worked closely with Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, overlooked the commercials directed at Blankenship. GOP ad-making firm McCarthy, Hennings, Whalen and were placed on TV by the media buyer Main Street Group – the Senate Leadership Fund gave both companies thousands of dollars during the 2016 election cycle.
Mountain Families PAC also shoveled nearly $50,000 into a Washington-based GOP consulting firm called Targeted Victory for ads targeting Blankenship. He believes the campaign against him is part and parcel to the anti-Trump movement within Republican circles during the 2016 presidential election.
“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is likely lying when he says he fears I will not be able to defeat Joe Manchin in the fall. If he is not lying, he certainly has no idea what the political realities are in West Virginia, Blankenship wrote in a press statement to The Daily Caller News Foundation. “The Never Trump movement has turned into the the Never Blankenship movement.”