Ex-Con Candidate Compounding GOP Woes in West Virginia - NBC New York
National & International News
The day’s top national and international news

Ex-Con Candidate Compounding GOP Woes in West Virginia

Trump has done his part to hurt Don Blankenship's chances



    Ex-Con Candidate Compounding GOP Woes in West Virginia
    Spencer Platt/Getty Images
    Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Don Blankenship speaks at a town hall meeting at West Virginia University on March 1, 2018 in Morgantown, West Virginia. Blankenship is the former chief executive of the Massey Energy Company where an explosion in the Upper Big Branch coal mine killed 29 men in 2010. Blankenship, a controversial candidate in central Appalachia coal country, served a one-year sentence for conspiracy to violate mine safety laws and has continued to blame the government for the accident despite investigators findings.

    Republican Don Blankenship doesn't care if his party and his president don't think he can beat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin this fall.

    This former coal mining executive, an ex-convict released from prison less than a year ago, is willing to risk his personal fortune and the Republican Party's golden opportunity in West Virginia for the chance to prove them all wrong.

    "I'll get elected on my own merits," Blankenship said this week.

    There aren't a lot of things that can sink Republicans' hopes in ruby red West Virginia, where President Donald Trump won by 42 percentage points, but Blankenship could well be one. His candidacy is sending shudders down the spines of Republicans — an already rattled group this election season — who are furiously working to ensure he is not their choice to take on Manchin in November's midterm election.

    Mueller Report: 10 Instances of Possible Obstruction of Justice by Trump

    [NATL] Mueller Report: 10 Instances of Possible Obstruction of Justice by Trump

    Special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election included instances of potential obstruction by President Donald Trump. Here is a rundown of the ten mentioned in the report.

    (Published Thursday, April 18, 2019)

    Blankenship's primary bid is still an outside shot, but the spectacle is testing whether a Republican Party led by an anti-establishment outsider can rein in the party's anti-establishment impulses.

    "The establishment, no matter who you define it as, has not been creating jobs in West Virginia," Blankenship said at a primary debate this week.

    Even before Blankenship emerged as a legitimate Republican candidate, West Virginia was a worry for some Republicans.

    Manchin, a former governor, has held elected office of some sort in West Virginia for the better part of the last three decades. And he's worked hard to cozy up to Trump and nurture a bipartisan brand.

    He has voted with the Republican president more than he has opposed him, his office says, noting that the pair have personally collaborated on trade, weakening environmental regulations, gun violence and court nominations.

    The alignment with Trump was so effective former White House adviser Steve Bannon worried privately to colleagues that Trump might actually endorse the Democrat. While an outright endorsement now is unlikely, a Blankenship primary victory on May 8 could push Trump to help Manchin — indirectly at least — by ignoring West Virginia this fall.

    Key Moments From Barr's Presser Prior to Report Release

    [NATL] Key Moments From AG Barr's Press Conference Prior to Redacted Mueller Report's Release

    Attorney General William Barr addressed the media prior to his department's release of special counsel Robert Mueller's report to Congress.

    (Published Thursday, April 18, 2019)

    The state has long been considered a prime pickup opportunity for Republicans, who hold a two-seat Senate majority that suddenly feels less secure given signs of Democratic momentum in states like Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee. If Democrats can win in the state that gave Trump his largest margin of victory in the nation, they may have a slim chance at seizing the Senate majority.

    Some of Trump's most prominent conservative supporters, particularly those in Bannon's network, have rallied behind state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a fiery, conservative former Capitol Hill aide, who was raised in New Jersey but has served as West Virginia's top lawyer since 2013. Rep. Evan Jenkins, who switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 2013, has highlighted his West Virginia roots and deep allegiance to Trump.

    Jenkins noted that Manchin missed a big opportunity to align himself with Trump on key issues such as taxes and health care.

    "The president gave Joe Manchin every opportunity in the early weeks and months of his administration to vote the right way," Jenkins said in an interview. "He voted wrong."

    But in interviews this week, both Morrisey and Jenkins declined to attack Blankenship for his role in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in four decades. Blankenship led the company that owned the mine and was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to break safety laws, a misdemeanor.

    Raising that dark history has been left to the national GOP forces believed to be behind the Mountain Families PAC, an organization created late last month that has invested more than $700,000 attacking Blankenship on television. A spokesman for the Senate GOP's most powerful super PAC declined to confirm or deny a connection to the group.

    Trump Celebrates Mueller Report as Democrats Plan Next Step

    [NATL] Trump Celebrates Mueller Report as Democrat Lawmakers Plan Next Step

    President Donald Trump celebrated the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report into Russia collusion today, but Democrats say this story isn't over and are already talking about their next step. The report, which totals over 400 pages, neither condemns nor exonerates the president.

    (Published Thursday, April 18, 2019)

    Trump has done his part to hurt Blankenship's chances as well.

    The president excluded the former mining executive from a recent West Virginia stop, where he appeared with Jenkins on one side and Morrisey on the other. And Cory Gardner, who leads the Senate GOP's national campaign efforts, had this to say to reporters when asked about Blankenship last week: "Do they let ankle bracelets get out of the house?"

    For voters, Blankenship remains a deeply polarizing figure.

    Blankenship calls himself a West Virginian but had his supervised release transferred last August to federal officials in Nevada, where he has a six-bedroom home with his fiancee 20 miles from Las Vegas, in Henderson.

    "It's a friendly place and I like it," said Blankenship, whose supervised release ends May 9, the day after the primary.

    Blankenship recently drew attention for comments on a radio show about the father of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Blankenship said he believed McConnell has a conflict of interest in foreign relations matters, in particular those dealing with China. Chao's father was born in China and started an international shipping company in New York.

    Schiff: AG Did 'Grave Disservice' to US

    [NATL] Schiff: AG Did 'Grave Disservice' to US

    House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said Thursday that Attorney General William Barr "did a grave disservice to his own country by misrepresenting several parts of the Mueller report."

    (Published Thursday, April 18, 2019)

    According to media reports, Blankenship's fiancee also was born in China.

    "I don't have any problem with Chinese people, Chinese girlfriend, Chinese anything," Blankenship told the radio station. "But I have an issue when the father-in-law is a wealthy Chinaperson and has a lot of connections with some of the brass, if you will, in China."

    "He's ruthless, cold-blooded, cold-hearted, self-centered," said Stanley Stewart, a retired miner who was inside the Upper Big Branch mine when it blew up in 2010. "I feel that if anybody voted for Don Blankenship, they may as well stick a knife in their back and twist it, because that's exactly what he'll do," Stewart said in an interview this week.

    But there is also skepticism that he was treated fairly by the courts. Blankenship has cast himself as a victim of an overbearing Obama administration, an argument that resonates with many white working-class voters on the ground here.

    "What they've said he's actually done (in the criminal case), I don't believe none of that," 21-year-old coal mechanic Zack Ball said while grabbing a bite to eat in the Boone County coal community of Danville this week. "Don Blankenship all the way."

    Inside a Whitesville pizza shop a few miles north of the shuttered Upper Big Branch mine, retiree Debbie Pauley said Blankenship "was railroaded" at his trial.

    Nadler: Barr Undermined His Own Department to Protect Trump

    [NATL] Nadler: Barr Undermined His Own Department to Protect Trump

    House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-NY, said after the release of the redacted Mueller report that Attorney General William Barr has “shown an unsettling willingness to undermine his own department in order to protect President Trump.”

    (Published Thursday, April 18, 2019)

    "I think that Blankenship does have integrity," she said. "I don't think he'd put up with any crap."