Nail-Biter for GOP in the Heart of Trump Country

(CN) — West Virginia State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the Republican primary for the the U.S. Senate Tuesday night, beating  Don Blankenship, the brash West Virginia coal magnate and GOP outsider.

Blankenship walked off empty-handed in the state’s Republican primary after President Trump’s last-minute plea for voters to support almost anyone else.

Blankenship finished third in the primary, behind Morrisey and Congressman Evan Jenkins. Blankenship, mostly leaning on Trump’s own insurgent playbook, remained unpopular with Republican leaders in Washington due to his having spent a year behind bars after the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers.

The national party believed having Blankenship represent the party in West Virginia would make it all but impossible for the GOP to out Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in November.

In the month leading up to Tuesday’s primary vote, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had spent over $1.3 million on a barrage of anti-Blankenship TV ads, and the party has been nearly as active.

The Senate Republican campaign arm has highlighted Blankenship’s criminal history. And a group allied with the national GOP, known as Mountain Families PAC, has spent more than $1.2 million in attack ads against Blankenship in recent weeks.

The party’s opposition may actually have worked to diminish Blankenship’s prospects in this Trumpian, anti-establishment era, turning the primary into the week’s premiere political contest.

On Monday, Trump tweeted, Blankenship “can’t win the General Election in your State … No way!”

But the broadside seemed to delight the candidate, who suggested, “West Virginia will send the swamp a message: No one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote.”

He also suggested the tweet was too little too late.

“I think it’s … over,” he told Politico on Monday afternoon. “It probably tightens it a point or two, but I don’t think it matters much.”

Blankenship conceded early Tuesday evening, saying that he “didn’t get it done.”

West Virginia was one of four states hosting primary contests on Tuesday. The others are Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio. All four states went for Trump in 2016.

In Indiana, Republicans chose businessman Mike Braun from among three Senate candidates who have spent much of the race praising Trump and bashing one another. Braun will take on another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Joe Donnelly, this fall.

In Ohio, Republicans nominated Trump-backed Congressman Jim Renacci, a more conservative candidate than outgoing GOP Gov. John Kasich, a 2016 presidential candidate and frequent Trump critic. Even Kasich’s former running mate, Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, has pledged to unwind some of Kasich’s centrist policies, including the expansion of the Medicaid government insurance program.

Ohio also featured primary elections in both parties to decide the candidates for an August special election to replace GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi, who resigned earlier in the year. Democrat Danny O’Connor won his party’s primary and will face GOP primary winner Troy Balderson.

North Carolina Republicans weighed in on the fate of Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, who faced a primary challenger who almost upset him two years ago. Pittenger featured Trump prominently in his campaign, while challenger Mark Harris, a prominent Charlotte pastor, has called Pittenger a creature of Washington who refuses to help Trump “drain that swamp.” Voters chose Harris over the incumbent Pittenger in a tight race.

Yet none of Tuesday’s contests is expected to have more impact on the 2018 midterm landscape than West Virginia.

Blankenship embraced Trump’s tactics — casting himself as a victim of government persecution — to stand out in a crowded Republican field that includes state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Republican congressman Evan Jenkins.

The retired businessman was released from prison less than a year ago for his role in a 2010 mine explosion that left 29 men dead. Blankenship led the company that owned the mine and was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to break safety laws, a misdemeanor.

He has repeatedly blamed government regulators for the 2010 mine explosion, and he has used race and ethnicity to appeal to supporters in the campaign’s final days, just as Trump did throughout his campaign.

The Senate candidate took aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in an ad claiming that McConnell has created jobs for “China people” and that his “China family” has given him millions of dollars. McConnell’s wife is U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan.

Blankenship also called McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” in a previous ad. That reference stems from a 2014 magazine article alleging drugs were found aboard a commercial cargo ship owned by Chao’s family.

Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake, a frequent Trump critic, suggested that Blankenship presents a moral problem for the GOP, not just a political one. He said he’s ready to donate to Manchin’s campaign if Blankenship becomes the GOP nominee.

“You get somebody like that in the Senate, you might get us one seat but you lose your soul,” Flake said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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