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Opinion If 2018 were a season of ‘The Apprentice,’ we’d already have a front-runner

Don Blankenship speaks at a town hall in Logan, W.Va. (Steve Helber/AP)

If the 2018 midterm election were a season of “The Apprentice,” we would already have a front-runner to beat out everyone else: Don Blankenship, fresh out of prison, who stands a decent chance of becoming West Virginia’s next Republican nominee for the Senate.

Among this year’s crop of red-state Republican candidates, there are more than a few who seem as eager as the contestants on President Trump’s old reality show to cast themselves as his clones. But when it comes to being an exemplar of the principles, or lack of them, that put Trump where he is today, none quite matches the former coal baron once considered the most reviled person in West Virginia.

At a Republican debate Monday night in Wheeling, Blankenship boasted that he is “Trumpier than Trump, and . . . that’s a fact.”

If that is another way of saying he is shameless, Blankenship has a point.

He became notorious as the chief executive of Massey Energy when its Upper Big Branch coal mine exploded in 2010, killing 29 people working there. Blankenship was convicted of conspiring to violate workplace-safety laws and sentenced to a year, after a jury acquitted him of more serious felony charges that could have put him away for much longer.

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Anyone else might be wracked with remorse. But in Blankenship’s telling, he was a victim, too. Or as he put it, a “political prisoner.” Like Trump, he sees the hand of the “deep state” behind his legal woes — in his case, a conspiracy between an overzealous Obama administration and the state’s then-governor, Joe Manchin III (D).

That would be the same Joe Manchin whom Blankenship now hopes to unseat from the Senate. Manchin, though popular in West Virginia and a proven political survivor, is vulnerable, if for no other reason than that he is a Democrat in a state that Trump won by more than 40 percentage points in 2016.

For Blankenship, however, this is personal. Manchin has said that responsibility for the mine disaster “permeated from the top down.” The very week that Massey’s former chief executive got out of prison last May, he let loose a barrage of tweets, including one that said: “I challenge Sen. Manchin to debate UBB truth. A U.S. Senator who says I have ‘blood on my hands’ should be man enough to face me in public.”

As Blankenship campaigns throughout the state, he still brings up prison — but as a place where he would like to send Trump’s favorite foil. “We don’t need to investigate our president,” one of his recent ads declared. “We need to arrest Hillary.”

Blankenship also shares Trump’s aversion to transparency. He has refused to disclose his personal finances to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics, even though it is legally required. He told the New York Times there isn’t “much of a penalty” for flouting the law, and added, “I don’t personally think anybody should have to disclose private information.”

His reluctance to do so is understandable, in light of the newspaper’s report that his primary residence is actually a $2.4 million villa near Las Vegas.

National Republicans have been watching the May 8 GOP primary race in horror. They believe that either of Blankenship’s more mainstream rivals, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, would stand a better chance of delivering the Senate seat this fall. Right now, the race is fluid, with a Fox News poll indicating the top three contenders within nine points of one another and at least one-quarter of the electorate still undecided.

Lately, things have gotten even uglier. Earlier this month, a new super PAC with ties to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) launched an ad accusing Blankenship’s company of poisoning local drinking water with coal slurry, even as its multimillionaire CEO installed a piping system to provide his own mansion with uncontaminated water. The tag line: “Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?”

Blankenship responded with . . . immigrant bashing, a favorite diversionary tactic by you-know-who.

In an interview Monday with a West Virginia radio show, Blankenship accused McConnell of “obstructing President Trump’s put-America-first program,” and speculated that the majority leader might be “soft on China” because his “father-in-law is a wealthy China person.” McConnell’s wife is Taiwan-born Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, whose Chinese American father founded a shipping company.

At any other time, a candidate with Blankenship’s baggage would not have stood a chance. But in 2018, he might actually become a Republican standard-bearer. In which case, “Trumpier than Trump” will have worked as a slogan — and as a requiem for decency.

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