President Donald Trump implored West Virginia voters to “remember Alabama” on Tuesday when they cast ballots in the state’s Republican Senate primary, warning them against supporting coal baron Don Blankenship‘s late-surging campaign.
“To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference,” Trump wrote on Twitter Monday morning. “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State…No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!”
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Blankenship spent a year in jail after the 2010 explosion at his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine, which killed 29 people. Despite his controversial candidacy, Republicans said the three-man GOP primary that also includes Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.) and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has tightened in recent days, with some polling putting Blankenship ahead.
The West Virginia Senate seat currently held by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is considered to be among the top pick-up opportunities for Republicans in November’s midterm elections, one of several seats Democrats are defending in states where Trump won handily in 2016. But there is concern among Republicans that a Blankenship win on Tuesday would all but guarantee Manchin‘s reelection.
Blankenship responded later Monday morning with a lengthy statement, insisting that he‘s the best candidate to defeat Manchin and panning Jenkins and Morrisey as “candidates who have failed to address the drug epidemic, aligned themselves with abortionists, and have never created a job.” He claimed unrivaled credentials as a West Virginia Republican and said “West Virginia voters should remember that my enemies are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”
Trump’s tweet, Blankenship said in his statement, was misinformed.
“The President is a very busy man and he doesn’t know me and he doesn’t know how flawed my two main opponents are in this primary. The establishment is misinforming him because they do not want me to be in the US Senate and promote the President’s agenda,” Blankenship wrote. “Tomorrow, West Virginia will send the swamp a message—no one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote. As some have said, I am Trumpier than Trump and this morning proves it.”
Blankenship said Trump’s online post was evidence of scrambling by the political establishment to keep him from winning the GOP nomination in tomorrow’s West Virginia primary. Public polling of the race has been sparse, but Blankenship claimed Monday during a local radio interview that his campaign’s internal polling “double digits, and more, ahead. In fact, we have — our most recent poll shows we’re 19 to 20 points ahead.” Internal polls conducted by other campaigns also show Blankenship ahead, but by a much closer margin.
“The establishment is willing to do anything and everything to prevent my election, even more so than they did under Trump, because I don’t think they thought Trump could win, either,” Blankenship told Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval. “I definitely am more in line with West Virginia’s beliefs and more understanding of their needs than the president could possibly be, simply because he’s not had the exposure to West Virginia that I’ve had the last 58 years.”
The president’s attack against Blankenship came on the heels of a telephone conversation between Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over the weekend, when the subject of Tuesday’s primary in West Virginia was among the topics of conversation, according to a Republican official. Trump had been planning to critique Blankenship before his conversation with McConnell, the GOP official said, and told the Senate majority leader of his plans to weigh in on the race via Twitter.
White House staffers, the official said, were considering rhetoric to use against Blankenship last Friday.
Fresh on the minds of Republicans amid the West Virginia primary is last year’s Senate special election in Alabama, where GOP voters handed the nomination to controversial former state Supreme Court judge Roy Moore, who was accused during the general election of molesting a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s. Moore wound up losing the seat formerly held by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), the first time Alabamians elected a Democrat to the Senate since 1992.
Trump had originally endorsed Luther Strange in the Alabama GOP primary, leading to an awkward situation when Moore triumphed in that contest but then lost the election to Jones, and it was not seen as likely that Trump would formally come out against Blankenship and risk further embarrassment.
However, Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., publicly denounced Blankenship last week. “I hate to lose. So I’m gonna go out on a limb here and ask the people of West Virginia to make a wise decision and reject Blankenship!” Trump Jr. tweeted on May 3. “No more fumbles like Alabama. We need to win in November.”
Morrisey’s campaign quickly issued a press release on Monday touting the president’s criticism of Blankenship, labeling him “a certain loser against Sen. Manchin and a threat to conservative values.”
“I hope West Virginia voters will listen to President Trump when they go to the polls tomorrow,” Morrisey said in a statement included within his campaign’s press release. “We have a real chance to unite behind a proven conservative fighter and defeat Sen. Manchin in the fall. If we do that, West Virginia will have a senator who will work closely with President Trump. Don Blankenship is Chuck Schumer’s favorite candidate because everyone knows he will lose to Joe Manchin in the fall.”
Beyond his criminal past, Blankenship has also delved into racial attacks on the campaign trail, labeling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “Cocaine Mitch” in reference to a 2014 incident in which drugs were found aboard a shipping vessel owned by the family of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Blankenship has also suggested that McConnell’s “China family has given him tens of millions of dollars,” also seemingly a reference to Chao, who was born in Taiwan.