If there's one person who has run the most Donald Trump-esque campaign since the 2016 election, it's probably Don Blankenship. And yet, Trump is trying to stop him.
In a tweet Monday morning, Trump urged West Virginia GOP voters to reject Blankenship, who served a year-long prison sentence following the deaths of 29 miners at his coal mine and has leaned on thinly veiled racism and conspiracy in his campaign.
Trump's tweet demonstrates just how concerned the GOP is about the former Massey Energy chief executive, who is surging ahead of Tuesday's primary. And it's difficult to oversell how disastrous this all could be — not just for Republican efforts to defeat Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) in a competitive race but for the party more broadly.
Republicans have seen a number of extreme (and extremely bad) candidates find their way through GOP primaries, thanks to electorates who were eager to stick it to the establishment. Sharron Angle. Todd Akin. Richard Mourdock. Christine O'Donnell. Roy Moore. All five lost.
But while these candidates were exposed for their vulnerabilities, much of that came in the general election. That's when Akin made his “legitimate rape” comment. That's when Mourdock said God “intends” for rape to result in pregnancy. That's when Moore's alleged romantic pursuit of teenage girls as a young prosecutor came to light.
Blankenship, though, presents something more troubling for the GOP: a road map for other primary candidates.
Blankenship's apparent rise in Tuesday's GOP primary has coincided with an increasingly racial and conspiratorial focus on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) in-laws (or, as Blankenship has put it, his “China family” and his “wealthy China person” father-in-law). Blankenship has repeatedly called McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” a nickname based upon wild Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-esque connections. Blankenship has blamed his mine explosion on the government. He even uttered the word “Negro" ... while defending himself against charges of racism.
Just think what this looks like if you're another Republican primary candidate. Here is the man who less than a decade ago was regarded as the most hated man in West Virginia — a guy who was convicted of a misdemeanor related to the deaths of more than two dozen people. If Blankenship somehow emerges victorious from his primary with state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins, it will sure look as if the “Cocaine Mitch,” “China person” and “Negro” comments got him there. Blankenship has run arguably the most thinly veiled dog-whistle campaign in many years, and it will have been vindicated.
I say “arguably,” because there's one man who might lay claim to that title, as well: Trump. Trump in many ways paved the way for what Blankenship is doing right now. Whether you believe Trump's campaign was racist, he certainly talked about racial issues in a way we haven't seen in a long time on the presidential stage, and he often pitted his supporters against the worst elements of other demographics — first and foremost being criminal, rapist Mexican immigrants and dangerous, extremist Muslims. Trump also embraced conspiracy theories about voter fraud and President Barack Obama's birth place that played to the idea that the political establishment was evil, nefarious and constantly breaking the rules.
Other candidates have toyed with these electoral tools — including Ed Gillespie in his Virginia gubernatorial campaign — but Blankenship has taken that approach and turned it up to 11.
There's an argument that this is the kind of thing that could work uniquely well in West Virginia. This is a heavily conservative, populist state, where a former Ku Klux Klan
grand wizard exalted cyclops member (Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd) served for decades until 2010. It's also a three-way primary in which Blankenship's threshold for victory is considerably lower. The idea that this approach would work outside the South and Appalachia is probably far-fetched.
But you have to think this would embolden candidates in those states and maybe a few others to try to emulate what Blankenship is doing. That's what's so dangerous about this for Republicans. And that's probably why someone has seen fit to commission a Trump tweet against that man who is running Trump's own electoral game plan.