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GOP in crisis as convicted criminal runs for Senate in West Virginia

Mitch McConnell and his allies are cracking down to try to stop a convicted criminal from winning the Senate nomination against a red-state Democrat. And it is getting ugly.

By Matthew Chapman - April 17, 2018
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has found himself in a feud with convicted criminal and former coal baron Don Blankenship, as Republicans fear the latter could derail their push to defeat Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin.

On Monday, Blankenship attacked McConnell, calling him a “swamp captain.” He even compared McConnell’s party leadership to Russian election interference, saying, “The Russians and McConnell should both stop interfering with elections outside their jurisdictions.”

For his part, McConnell told reporters he does not want Blankenship to win the primary, which also includes Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey. And last week, a group called Mountain Families PAC, alongside consultants allied with a pro-McConnell organization, launched a campaign against Blankenship.

“Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington already?” reads the group’s website.

Behind the nastiness lurks legitimate cause for Republican alarm. The two most recent primary polls, commissioned by Blankenship’s opponents, show him within 2 points of taking the lead.

Republicans have good reason not to want Blankenship as their nominee. He was released from federal prison last May, after serving a year for conspiring to violate mine safety regulations, in connection with a 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch facility that killed 29 miners. He has since spent out of his own pocket on a campaign that has cast President Obama and Manchin as the real villains of the mine disaster.

In a typical election cycle, West Virginia would be a prime pickup opportunity for McConnell’s Senate caucus. Trump carried the state by over 40 points. But Blankenship’s baggage is broadly considered fatal.

“If Don would win the primary, Joe just drew a bye for the general election,” one conservative West Virginia strategist told U.S. News & World Report.

Last year in Alabama’s special election, McConnell was humiliated when his preferred candidate, Luther Strange, lost to disgraced former judge Roy Moore. Moore proceeded to lose the general election amid allegations he molested teenage girls.

If West Virginia Republicans nominate a convicted criminal for Senate, they risk the same fate.

In a year when the Republican Party is broadly vulnerable, leaders are struggling to impose discipline and ensure they have the strongest possible nominees. But the resilience of candidates like Blankenship suggests the GOP is only becoming more untethered.

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