What you should know about the wild West Virginia primary elections

Republicans are concerned -- and Democrats are hopeful -- that West Virginia could be Alabama all over again.

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks with the news media before holding a Town Hall meeting with coal miners on March 31, 2017 in Matewan, West Virginia. CREDIT: Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) speaks with the news media before holding a Town Hall meeting with coal miners on March 31, 2017 in Matewan, West Virginia. CREDIT: Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Voters in West Virginia will go to the polls Tuesday to cast their votes in the state’s Republican primary, a dirty three-way race between Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV), West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and coal baron Don Blankenship, who recently finished a prison sentence after conspiring to violate federal safety and health laws at a West Virginia mine where an explosion killed 29 people in 2010.

The race has drawn national attention as incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats going into the general election this November. In 2016, Trump won the state by more than 42 points, but Republicans have grown increasingly concerned that reported front-runner Blankenship could be another Roy Moore, the failed, extremist Republican nominee who was accused of child molestation during last year’s special election in Alabama.

Establishment favorites

Jenkins has made his anti-abortion, pro-coal stances central to his campaign, and Morrisey has often focused on his work combating the state’s opioid epidemic as attorney general. Both candidates share Trump’s immigration views: Jenkins has said he believes Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was unconstitutional, and Morrisey told Fox News that he is working with Trump to “go after” sanctuary cities.


The race has been testy for months. In January, Jenkins called on Morrisey to disavow Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist whose relationship with the president soured suddenly and dramatically earlier this year.

“After Steve Bannon’s attacks on President Trump and his family, Patrick Morrisey should immediately disavow Bannon’s support,” Jenkins said in a statement. “If he refuses, WV will know what President Trump said of Bannon today is also true of Morrisey — he is only in it for himself.”

Jenkins, a former Democrat, also criticized Morrisey for not supporting Trump earlier during the 2016 campaign, saying in a statement, “West Virginians will recall that Morrisey pointedly declined to endorse Donald Trump until months after he won the GOP nomination — the only RNC delegate from the Mountain State to take that stance.” (Jenkins endorsed Trump just before the state’s primary, and Morrisey remained publicly neutral until around the time of the RNC convention.)

Morrisey hit back on Twitter and in a statement, calling Jenkins a “fraud.”

“He supported Hillary Clinton in 2008 and stood by and let Barack Obama run roughshod over WV,” Morrisey tweeted. “WV is not looking for a pretend conservative with a 20 year liberal record. Desperate attacks by a candidate not likely to have a good month.”

Another Roy Moore?

Despite their rivalry, both Jenkins and Morrisey have garnered support from more establishment Republicans: a Fox News poll from late last month had Jenkins with 25 percent of the vote, Morrisey with 21 percent, and Blankenship with 16, with 24 percent of voters undecided.


But two other polls from unnamed rival Senate campaigns obtained by the Weekly Standard Monday morning tell a different story. Most importantly, both polls had Blankenship in the lead with 31 percent in one poll and 28 percent in the other.

Blankenship’s campaign has been seen as an effort to rehabilitate his image after his conviction and prison sentence, but ultimately he’s only made his name as the worst candidate in America.

Last month, he attacked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s Chinese father-in-law in a radio interview, saying, “I have an issue when the father-in-law is a wealthy Chinaperson and there’s a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China.”

In a debate last Wednesday, he defended his comments, saying that it was exactly like if someone had referred to him — Blankenship — as an “American-person.”


“This idea that calling someone a ‘Chinaperson’ — I mean, I’m an American-person — I don’t see this insinuation by the press that there is something racist about saying a ‘Chinaperson,’” he said. “Some people are Korean-persons, some people are African-persons. It’s not any slander there.”

Remarkably, he’s only kept up the racist attacks on McConnell, whose wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, is Chinese-American.

“Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for Chinapeople,” Blankenship says in a new ad that hit the airwaves last Friday. “While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.”

The ad ends with Blankenship holding two young girls and saying, “I will beat Joe Manchin and ditch ‘Cocaine Mitch’ for the sake of the kids.”

Blankenship coined the “Cocaine Mitch” nickname last week, saying it was because of a 2014 article reporting cocaine was found on a ship belonging to McConnell’s father-in-law’s company.

The Mountain Families PAC, a group of Republican strategists with ties to McConnell, has poured nearly $745,000 into the race against Blankenship, and Trump himself came out against the coal baron Monday morning.

“Don Blankenship… can’t win the General Election in your State,” he tweeted. “No way! Remember Alabama or A.G. Morrisey.”

Both Morrisey and Jenkins have touted the tweet as an endorsement.

“Help Trump and the conservative fighter defeat this convicted criminal,” Morrisey tweeted Monday morning.

“I’m proud to have President Trump’s support,” Jenkins said minutes later.

While establishment Republicans have taken the “Anybody but Blankenship” path, some Democrats are publicly hoping Blankenship will prevail. According to a Washington Examiner report last week, one Democratic super PAC in the state has been spending against Jenkins with the express purpose of swinging the race for Blankenship.

A vulnerable incumbent Democrat

Before he can face Blankenship or any other Republican, Manchin must get through a primary race of his own. Progressive activist turned candidate Paula Jean Swearengin is challenging the moderate Democrat, though Manchin has outraised her 30 to 1 and the two have never debated. Manchin is essentially a lock Tuesday, but from there, nothing’s certain.

Manchin has voted with Trump more than 61 percent of the time, and he’s tried to set himself up as a moderate willing to work across the aisle. But the effort appears to have failed.

A Morning Consult poll last month found that Manchin had the sharpest drop in approval of any senator during the first quarter of 2018, down 17 points to just 43 percent with a 44 percent disapproval rating.

In 2012, Manchin was reelected with 60.5 percent of the vote, compared to 36.5 for his Republican challenger. Now, however, the race is considered a toss-up.