Blankenship posing new headache for Republicans in West Virginia, even after defeat

Don Blankenship isn't going away quietly, despite losing last week's bid for the GOP nomination in West Virginia's Senate race. 

Now, the former coal mining CEO who spent a year in jail in connection with the fatal 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster is apparently vowing to do what he can to undermine his party's nominee. And he's still pushing out videos going after Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, making clear he's not done agitating the establishment. 

Blankenship adviser Greg Thomas gave a cryptic warning last week about his candidate's plans on the local radio show, "Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval." 

He said Blankenship will not support primary winner Patrick Morrisey, and: "I think the one thing he is going to make sure doesn't happen is that Patrick Morrisey does not become a U.S. senator."

Thomas noted that Blankenship publicly stated for weeks that he would not back Morrisey if he became the nominee, and said he's “a man of his word.” He said Blankenship is "researching and evaluating his options" and will be "making a decision soon." 

The threat opens the door to interference -- of some kind -- from within the GOP in the high-stakes Senate race. Whether it's enough to worry Republican strategists in their bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin remains to be seen. 

West Virginia Republican Party leader Melody Potter on Monday declined a Fox News request for comment. However, she told West Virginia's Metro News that she was optimistic about primary wounds quickly healing and everybody backing the effort to oust Manchin. 

“I have a lot of faith that when everyone gets rested up … that they’re going to get behind us, because they know the best way to defeat Joe Manchin is to support Patrick Morrisey,” she said. “We all know it was a very bloody primary. … Greg and Mr. Blankenship both have worked within the Republican Party for several years and have done a lot.”

Denise Morrisey stands next to her husband, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, as he speaks at his campaign headquarters Tuesday, May 8, 2018, in Kearnesville, W.Va. (Ron Agnir/The Journal via AP)

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the state GOP primary for U.S. Senate but losing rival Don Blankenship could still create problems for Morrisey's general election bid.

Blankenship had mounted an outsider campaign that made the three-way race unexpectedly close in the final weeks.

Thomas claimed the bid was derailed by outside money from Washington Republicans and a tweet from President Trump telling West Virginians to vote for Morrisey, the state attorney general, or GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins. 

Mountain Families PAC, a super PAC aligned with the Republican establishment, spent more than $1.3 million to upend Blankenship’s bid, fearing he’d lose in a general election. And the biggest outside spender was Democrat-aligned super PAC Duty & Country, which targeted Jenkins and Morrisey, in an apparent attempt to usher Blankenship into the November race.

Blankenship, who finished third, spent more than $2.8 million on a campaign that included attacks on McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican, according to OpenSecrets.org.    

Blankenship was the CEO of the company that owned the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 miners. Blankenship was sent to jail on a misdemeanor charge of health and mine-safety violations.

His former campaign could not be reached Monday for comment.

While Blankenship has yet to say personally what he might do, if anything, to undermine the nominee in November, he’s certainly not finished with McConnell.

On Saturday, Blankenship posted a video on his Facebook page that criticized McConnell for gloating about Blankenship’s loss and mocking the “Cocaine Mitch” nickname the coal baron assigned him. 

Blankenship, during the campaign, latched onto a 2014 news report purporting that a cargo ship belonging to McConnell's Taiwanese in-laws was found to have cocaine on board.

After Blankenship's loss, the McConnell team tweeted a "Narcos"-themed picture of the senator surrounded in cocaine powder by the caption “Thanks for playing Don.”

The video Blankenship posted over the weekend includes a graphic of a shipping vessel and McConnell playing in a sandbox with the narrators saying, “Mitch is laughing, but we’re not. … And as for Mitch thanking Don Blankenship for playing in what Mitch considers his Senate sandbox, Don’s not finished playing in it yet.” 

Thomas, in last week's radio interview, continued to blame McConnell for the loss, pointing to reports that the Kentucky Republican urged Trump to make the anti-Blankenship tweet.

To be sure, McConnell and Trump were looking to avoid a situation like the one last year in Alabama where controversial GOP candidate Roy Moore won a special GOP election primary, then lost the GOP-held seat to Democrats in the general election.

Neither Morrisey’s campaign nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee has returned a call seeking comment about the Blankenship factor going forward.