Don Blankenship could be on his way to becoming a study in how anti-establishment politics can backfire, even in the zenith of anti-establishment politics.
The West Virginia GOP Senate candidate is launching a war against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to try to win his primary next week, but in the process he could be hurting his election chances more than he helps himself.
On Monday, a week before the GOP primary, Blankenship ran an ad calling McConnell “Cocaine Mitch.” To the viewers of that ad, Blankenship gave absolutely no context — letting people infer why a candidate for U.S. Senate would give an opponent such a moniker.
In a follow-up news release that he posted on his Facebook page, Blankenship linked to a 2014 report in the left-leaning Nation magazine that drugs were once found on a shipping vessel owned by McConnell's in-laws.
For the past few weeks, Blankenship — one of three main candidates vying to take on Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) in November — has lobbed extremely personal, race-driven insults at McConnell's family. He seems to have an obsession with McConnell's family, particularly his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
Last week, he accused McConnell of having a conflict of interest in governing because his wife's father is a “wealthy China person.” He later told Politico that Chao is “from China, so we have to be really concerned that we are in truth.” (Fact check: Chao immigrated to the United States as a child from Taiwan, which China claims is part of China but functions largely as an independent country. It's complicated.)
We see where Blankenship is trying to go with all this. Campaigning as a foil to the Republican establishment can be smart politics in Republican primaries, especially in the Trump era.
President Trump successfully ran as a foil to The Way Washington Works, including Republicans. And when Congress's approval rating stands at 18 percent, according to an April Gallup survey, it makes sense that Republican candidates for Congress would try to copy that format.
In fact, it's a given in Republican and Democratic circles right now that some candidates will campaign against their leaders because that's what they have to say to win, not because they really mean it.
But Blankenship is different. His war with the top Republican in the Senate seems to tip over the line of smart politics into dumb politics.
At some point, there's a diminishing return to the McConnell attacks. Sure, he's staking himself out as the anti-McConnell guy in the primary, but his attacks are so high-profile, he risks being known only for that. Do primary voters in West Virginia know who the Senate majority leader is, let alone his wife?
Plus, McConnell is certainly taking note. The only thing he's said publicly is to describe Blankenship's “wealthy China person” slam as “ridiculous.” Behind the scenes, McConnell is clearly maneuvering to make sure Blankenship loses Tuesday's primary.
He didn't just write a check against Blankenship. Politico reports McConnell allies created an entire super PAC that spent at least $1.3 million on TV ads attacking Blankenship.
McConnell's going for the throat, too: His allied super PAC points out in ads that Blankenship is a convicted criminal. Blankenship, a former coal baron, just finished a year in prison after an explosion at one of his mines killed 29 people. He was convicted on a misdemeanor for conspiring to violate mine safety laws.
“Don Blankenship was about the money,” one of the McConnell-allied ads says. “West Virginia families paid the price.”
Even before he started attacking McConnell's wife, Republicans in Washington were rooting against Blankenship. They did NOT want a convicted criminal to win the primary for one of their most competitive general elections. But they also arguably didn't need to rain down more than $1 million of attack ads on Blankenship at the last minute.
Blankenship had been leading the race early on, but as recently as last week he started slipping in the polls. A recent Fox News poll showed him in third place among likely GOP primary voters, behind Rep. Evan Jenkins (25 percent) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (21 percent). Blankenship came in at 16 percent.
Washington Republicans following the race say that Blankenship started falling as soon as his opponents had enough money to go on TV and introduce themselves to voters. (Blankenship, spending his own money, was up on TV for four or five months before anyone else.)
“I don't think Blankenship is as much of a concern as he was a few weeks ago” for the party, said a Washington-based Republican strategist last week.
But just in case, Blankenship seems intent on doing everything he can to make sure that Washington Republicans make sure he loses Tuesday. If he does, we can probably point back to his extreme attacks on McConnell as one reason.