CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Don Blankenship couldn’t overcome opposition from President Donald Trump and pressures from within his own party to capture the Republican U.S. Senate primary in West Virginia.
Nearly a year to the day after his release from prison, the bombastic ex-coal executive conceded the Republican Senate nomination Tuesday night but remained defiant.
“We ran against the establishment, and the establishment is not going to give up their position easily,” Blankenship said in his concession speech Tuesday night. “I knew going in I had an uphill battle.”
Blankenship finished a distant third to state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who will take on incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin in November.
In a state where Trump claimed his largest margin of victory in 2016, Republican voters heeded warnings from the president and his allies in Washington against supporting Blankenship.
Retiree Don Smith of Alum Creek said he didn’t vote for Blankenship because he didn’t believe he could win the Senate seat over Manchin.
“He’s got that liability,” Smith said. “I’m looking at who can beat Joe. And I just don’t think he can pull it off.”
Instead, Smith voted for U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, who finished second.
Blankenship served a year in prison for his role in the 2010 West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 men. More recently, he took swipes at “China people” and referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch” in ads. The White House worried that Blankenship’s baggage would make it all but impossible to defeat Manchin.
The head of the Senate Republican campaign arm had highlighted Blankenship’s criminal history. And a group allied with the national GOP, known as Mountain Families PAC, had spent more than $1.2 million in attack ads against Blankenship.
Blankenship was CEO of mine owner Massey Energy, whose Upper Big Branch mine in southern West Virginia exploded in April 2010. Manchin was West Virginia’s governor at the time and said Blankenship had “blood on his hands.”
Blankenship retired eight months later, was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to break mine safety laws, a misdemeanor, and served a year in a California prison. He was released a year ago Thursday.
Blankenship continues to blame government regulators for the disaster, even in his concession speech. He has cast himself as the victim of an overzealous Obama-era Justice Department.
In his recent ads, Blankenship took aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Blankenship said 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, born in Taiwan.
Blankenship said he doesn’t believe the ad cost him votes, “because unlike the media, I think West Virginians understand that ‘China people’ is not different than ‘Appalachia people,’ no different than ‘West Virginia people.’”
State law bars Blankenship from changing his voter registration and running in the fall election as an unaffiliated candidate.
Blankenship said Manchin “will be easy to beat, because the state we have created is so red that the Republican establishment will beat the Democratic establishment, but that doesn’t mean they’ll make our situation any better.”