- The Washington Times
Monday, January 1, 2018

Don Blankenship said the Environmental Protection Agency has become “the biggest polluter in the world” by forcing U.S. jobs to carbon-spewing countries like China.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for this colorful, wildly controversial Senate hopeful who’s using his West Virginia campaign as a vehicle to clear his name and push the theory that an Obama-led anti-coal conspiracy sent him to federal prison.

The former CEO of Massey Energy, Mr. Blankenship spent a year behind bars after being convicted of conspiracy to violate safety standards in connection to the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in 2010 that killed 29 of his employees. Now he faces a seemingly uphill political battle.

He’s facing off against Rep. Evan Jenkins and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in the state’s GOP Senate primary, with the winner moving on to a tough general-election brawl with the nation’s reddest Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin.

But in a Republican Party that embraced President Trump and almost sent alleged child predator Roy Moore to the Senate in Alabama, it may be foolish to count out an unorthodox candidate like Mr. Blankenship.

In West Virginia, where Mr. Trump trounced Democrat Hillary Clinton by a whopping 42 percentage points and where Republican primary voters are likely to be hungry for a hard-right candidate, Mr. Blankenship argues he’s got a winning message, having embraced the president’s policies long before the 2016 race.

“When you look at Trump’s margin [of victory] and look at the fact that I advocated his policies before he advocated his policies — I’ve long believed that trade policies are unfair and that regulations are stifling,” the former coal titan said last week in an interview.

After just a few minutes of talking to Mr. Blankenship, it becomes clear that he’ll pursue dual tracks with his Senate candidacy. As he pushes Trump-esque trade policies and regulatory rollbacks, he also intends to convince voters that the government was responsible for killing his miners and is knowingly allowing unsafe mines to continue operating across the country — allegations that miners’ unions and the federal government dismiss outright.

“As far as the explosion, I did not cause the explosion. The government did,” he said. “We can prevent it from happening again. The government has not made an effort to keep it from happening again.”

Local GOP leaders have distilled Mr. Blankenship’s message down to a bumper-sticker-sized slogan.

“Barack Obama, this local prosecutor and Joe Manchin put me in prison,” said Rob Cornelius, a Republican political operative who has worked with Mr. Blankenship.

That message already has hit the airwaves in West Virginia, where Mr. Blankenship is up with a conspiracy-flavored political ad that essentially pits him against Mr. Manchin and the entire federal government. The 30-second spot says the government has used Mr. Blankenship as a scapegoat to deflect blame from the fact that its own decisions led to the blast.

“It’s a cover-up,” the commercial proclaims.

In the past, Mr. Manchin has been unequivocal in his feelings about Mr. Blankenship, and the two have been political enemies going back decades.

“I believe that Don has blood on his hands,” Mr. Manchin said in 2014, referring to the Upper Big Branch disaster.

As the race begins to heat up, another of Mr. Blankenship’s old foes, the United Mine Workers of America, isn’t pulling punches. Mr. Blankenship is famous for bucking the organization and running non-union mines, so it’s little surprise labor would oppose him.

What may be surprising, however, is the deep disdain union leaders openly show toward Mr. Blankenship.

“It’s inappropriate in our view for him to even be out of jail,” said Phil Smith, a United Mine Workers spokesman. “He’s a serial violator of labor law. He’s a serial violator of environmental law. He’s a serial violator of health and safety laws. We just don’t need people like that … He created a culture at his company that was production first and safety last.”

‘A bridge too far’

For its part, the government isn’t engaging Mr. Blankenship’s claims. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) would not comment for this article.

Specifically, Mr. Blankenship and his allies say MSHA pushed a dangerous, deadly ventilation plan on his Upper Big Branch mine, rejecting warnings from those who said it could lead to an explosion.

Mr. Blankenship says he has a trove of emails proving that MSHA employees engaged in a cover-up — a claim repeated in his Senate campaign ad — and that he’ll release them when the time is right. Some emails purportedly from MSHA employees are shown in the campaign commercial, but Mr. Blankenship would not turn over all of the messages when pressed by The Washington Times.

But he was clear that he believes the issue ultimately will be an asset, not a liability, in the Republican primary.

“All of that is going to play well” with West Virginia voters, he said.

Political analysts aren’t so sure.

“I think he’s a bridge too far,” said John Kilwein, a political science professor at the University of West Virginia. “As much as [Barack] Obama is hated and the war on coal and all that … this guy is just seen as off the reservation even for the lovers of coal.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Manchin’s campaign has launched accusations that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell persuaded Mr. Blankenship to run — a charge Mr. McConnell’s office has denied.

“Joe Manchin is focused on working in the Senate for West Virginia families, not campaign politics. He won’t be distracted by Mitch McConnell’s backroom deals in Washington, D.C.,” Manchin campaign spokesman Grant Herring said after Mr. Blankenship announced his candidacy.

The former Massey CEO’s Republican primary opponents have mostly been silent, other than Mr. Morrisey issuing a brief statement saying anyone is welcome to run for the seat.

Behind the scenes, however, Mr. Blankenship’s allies say the Republicans know they’re in for a tough race. Furthermore, they argue Mr. Manchin is deeply scared to face Mr. Blankenship in a general election match-up. They point to past clashes between the two as proof that Mr. Manchin is politically vulnerable.

Most notably, Mr. Blankenship in 2005 funded and led a grass-roots effort to defeat then-Gov. Manchin’s proposal to sell $5.5 billion in bonds on Wall Street to help shore up state pension funds. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the idea, with 54 percent voting against it and 46 percent voting for it.

“No Republican has beaten Joe Manchin in an election except Don Blankenship,” said Mr. Cornelius, the West Virginia GOP consultant.

On policy, Mr. Blankenship says he’ll make regulatory reform a top priority if elected. He argues that the federal government has badly mishandled environmental rules, crushing businesses and forcing production into countries such as China, which have more lax rules on emissions.

“Those who claim to be concerned about the world overheating and oceans rising are either untruthful or ignorant. If you were a powerful person in the United States government and you were concerned about global warming, you certainly wouldn’t have the policies you have,” he said. “The EPA could be said to be the biggest polluter in the world.”

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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