President Trump Weighs In On West Virginia GOP Senate Primary

May 7, 2018
Originally published on May 7, 2018 8:07 pm
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President Trump has waded into the West Virginia Republican Senate primary. This morning, he tweeted that voters should reject a former Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship. Trump wrote that Blankenship, quote, "can't win the general election in your state. No way." Dave Mistich of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports that Republicans are worried Blankenship could make it harder to hold the Senate this November.

DAVE MISTICH, BYLINE: One reason many Republicans are worried about Blankenship is that he spent a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws after a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners at one of Massey's mines. Hours after the president's tweet, Blankenship was on a paid-for, televised town hall and said the, quote, "establishment" is giving Trump bad information.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON BLANKENSHIP: So they've done everything they could to put pressure on the president and misinform him, I suspect. But we still expect to win quite handily.

MISTICH: West Virginia Republicans think Senator Joe Manchin is one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year. The state went for Trump by a margin of more than 40 points in 2016. Beating Manchin could mean the difference between Republican and Democratic control of the Senate. The other Republican candidates ignored Blankenship until this past week. But at a press conference Sunday, state attorney general Patrick Morrisey announced that his campaign was contacting Blankenship's probation officer to see if the former coal CEO had violated the terms of his release.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICK MORRISEY: To be honest, I thought that West Virginians would see through the candidacy of Don Blankenship even more. And it's apparent over the last couple days as he's been moving up, getting very close in the polls, I think it's in the public interest to be able to talk about this information.

MISTICH: Blankenship calls himself the Trump-iest candidate in the race. He's campaigning as much against Senate leader Mitch McConnell as he is against Democrats. Blankenship has gone so far as to call McConnell, quote, "Cocaine Mitch" and used racially charged language referring to McConnell's wife, whose family comes from China.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLANKENSHIP: Mitch's swamp people are now running false negative ads against me. They are also childishly calling me despicable and mentally ill. The war to drain the swamp and create jobs for West Virginia people has begun. I will beat Joe Manchin and ditch Cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids.

MISTICH: Although Trump told voters not to vote for Blankenship, he hasn't endorsed the other major candidates, including Morrisey or congressman Evan Jenkins, outright. At an event in West Virginia last month, Trump attacked Manchin. He then asked the audience to cheer for their Republican candidate of choice as they flanked him on either side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Should we do a little test?

EVAN JENKINS: Yes. Let's do it. Let's do it.

MISTICH: If Blankenship pulls off a win, Republican strategist Alex Conant told Morning Edition that Republicans will face trouble in November.

ALEX CONANT: His candidacy does represent a real problem for the Republican Party. Look; if he's the nominee in West Virginia, Democrats are going to hold on to that seat. I don't think there's any question about that.

MISTICH: Conant says it's a sign of how seriously Trump is worried about losing the election this fall that he's weighed in on this race at the last minute. For NPR News, I'm Dave Mistich in Morgantown, W.Va.

(SOUNDBITE OF KERO ONE AND HERO ONE'S "IN ALL THE WRONG PLACES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.