West Virginia primary: Blankenship has Republicans scrambling to avoid Roy Moore repeat

A coal baron convict's hard-charging bid to win the GOP Senate primary Tuesday in West Virginia is throwing into chaos Washington Republicans’ plans for swiping the Democrat-held seat in November. 

Now, insurgent candidate Don Blankenship's primary rivals are in a last-minute drive to hold him down, with even President Trump appealing to voters to oppose his candidacy. 

“To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference,” Trump tweeted Monday morning. “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State...No way! Remember Alabama.” 

The final line was a reference to the Alabama Senate seat Republicans lost after Judge Roy Moore was nominated. National Republicans are scrambling to avoid a repeat, worried Blankenship -- convicted in 2015 of mine-safety violations -- can't beat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November.  

Blankenship, though, rejected the comparisons in an interview with Fox News' Peter Doocy. He said Trump is getting "bad information" and said his accusers are big Democrats -- not young women, a reference to Moore's accusers. 

Trump's attempt to thwart Blankenship’s outsider bid follows a report Saturday in Politico that suggests internal GOP polling has him pulling ahead of primary rivals Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Morrisey this past weekend launched his own attack on Blankenship.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) talks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 19, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas - RC1BDE7C9120

West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is seeking a full second term this year in an increasingly conservative state.

“Convicted criminal Don Blankenship didn’t vote for President Trump and is a resident of Nevada, where he must report to his parole officer,” he says in robocalls that started going out Saturday to potential voters.

The calls were followed Sunday by Morrisey trying to have Blankenship disqualified from the primary for failing to submit a financial disclosure, allegedly in violation of election law and perhaps of his probation.

Blankenship’s campaign said the candidate has already spoken to his probation officer, who wasn’t concerned about the financial disclosure.

“Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!” the president also said in his tweet Monday.

Morrisey is a former Capitol Hill aide who has served as West Virginia's top attorney since 2013 and has strong conservative support.

Jenkins, a former Democrat, has repeatedly argued that Manchin missed a big chance to align himself with Trump on 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," he recently said. "He voted wrong." 

Jenkins, speaking with Fox News, also thanked Trump for the "shout-out" on Monday. A Fox News poll released April 22 showed Jenkins with 25 percent of the vote among likely West Virginia GOP Senate primary voters, compared with Morrisey at 21 percent and Blankenship at 16 percent.

Blankenship, who until recently was largely ignored by the Jenkins and Morrisey campaigns, immediately downplayed the tweet Monday by Trump. All three candidates have tried to align themselves with the president. 

“He doesn’t know me and he doesn’t know how flawed my two main opponents are,”  Blankenship responded. “The establishment is misinforming him because they do not want me to be in the U.S. Senate and promote the president’s agenda. … I will win the primary and I will beat Joe Manchin. … As some have said, I am Trump-ier than Trump.”

To be sure, Republicans don’t want an Alabama Senate race redux. 

Firebrand conservative Moore won the state GOP primary over Trump-backed Luther Strange, then lost to Democrat Doug Jones, amid numerous damaging allegations about Moore’s past inappropriate behavior with women.

The loss cut the GOP’s Senate majority to 51-49.

Manchin has been a top GOP target since at least November 2016, when Trump won the state with 68.7 percent of the vote.

There are 35 Senate seats up for election this year -- nine held by Republicans and 26 held by Democrats, including two for independents who caucus with the party. 

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Early in the midterm election cycle, Republicans had hoped that winning Manchin’s seat would increase their slim Senate majority. But winning in West Virginia has become increasingly important for them in recent months, now that Democrats are posing credible challenges to GOP-held Senate seats in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee.

The 70-year-old Manchin has also created his own reelection challenges in a state where he’s now the only state-wide elected Democrat. He has consistently voted against Senate Republicans’ ObamaCare repeal or replace efforts and most recently their tax-cut bill that Trump signed in late-December 2017.

Blankenship surged into the race after being released from jail less than a year ago. He served about 12 months after being found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of violating mine safety and health standards in connection with the company he led and its 2010 accident at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 men were killed.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined from left by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, speaks to reporters following a closed-door strategy session on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 17, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is under attack from Don Blankenship, a Republican running for Senate seat in West Virginia as an anti-establishment candidate.  (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Despite his past, the 68-year-old Blankenship and his anti-establishment message appear to be resonating with voters, in a state with a 5.4 percent jobless rate, the third-highest in the country. 

"The establishment, no matter who you define it as, has not been creating jobs in West Virginia," Blankenship, also critical of how Morrisey and Jenkins have addressed the state’s opioid crisis, said at a recent debate.

He’s also focused his anti-establishment attack directly at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whom he calls “Cocaine Mitch” in a recent ad.

Blankenship is apparently trying to link the Kentucky Republican to a 2014 news report about drugs that were purportedly found on a ship owned by his in-laws. And he’s accused McConnell of creating jobs for "Chinapeople" and said his "China family" has given him millions of dollars -- leading to widespread criticism of his racially charged ads. 

McConnell's wife is Trump's transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan. Her father, entrepreneur and philanthropist James S.C. Chao, was born in China.

While Trump and Morrisey have just started attacking Blankenship, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., asked voters in a tweet last week to “make a wise decision and reject Blankenship.”

"No more fumbles like Alabama," he also said in the tweet, while the outside group Mountain Families PAC continued to run a reported $1.3 million worth of TV ads against Blankenship.

Fox News’ Peter Doocy and The Associated Press contributed to this report.