Republican Don Blankenship — running in Tuesday's West Virginia U.S. Senate primary — has escalated attacks on the Kentucky Republican in the final days of the primary as part of a strategy to run against so-called establishment Republicans. In an ad unveiled Thursday, the coal baron alleges "swamp captain" McConnell has "created millions of jobs for China people" and gotten rich from his "China family."
The racially charged attack alludes to McConnell's wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan. Her family owns a U.S.-based shipping company. Earlier in the week, Blankenship pledged to "ditch Cocaine Mitch," an apparent reference to a 2014 report about drugs being found aboard one of the company's vessels.
Even before the bizarre, factually murky attacks this week, Republican leaders hoped Blankenship's primary bid would fall short. He served prison time for his role in a 2010 Massey Energy mine explosion that left 29 people dead.
Republicans worry a Blankenship win would ruin their chance to compete in November against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the Senate's most vulnerable incumbents. They feared a similar outcome to what happened in deep-red Alabama in December, when Democratic Sen. Doug Jones beat ex-judge Roy Moore, who faced allegations of sexually abusing teenagers decades ago.
McConnell's allies had not criticized Blankenship as openly as they did Moore when he ran in Alabama's GOP primary as an anti-McConnell candidate. That started to change following the latest racially charged ad.
The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC released a statement highlighting a New York Times report that says Blankenship has shown interest in obtaining Chinese citizenship.
"There is only one candidate in this race — maybe in the history of candidates running for U.S. Senate, who has ever entertained the idea becoming Chinese. His name is ex-convict Don Blankenship," group spokesman Chris Pack said in a statement.
In a tweet Thursday, former McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes dubbed Blankenship "West Virginia Roy Moore." He said "this clown is a walking, talking case study for the limitation of a prison's ability to rehabilitate."
A GOP-aligned super PAC, Mountain Families PAC, previously shelled out more than $1 million in negative ads against Blankenship.
President Donald Trump, who broke with McConnell to support Moore in Alabama, has not openly attacked Blankenship. However, he more subtly rebuked the candidate last month, when he invited GOP Senate candidates Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to sit on either side of him at an event promoting the GOP tax plan.
Trump's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., chimed in on the race on Thursday. He tweeted that "there are two qualified conservative and ELECTABLE candidates" and "one train wreck who would guarantee another term for Joe Manchin."
Blankenship dubbed Trump's criticism as an attack by "establishment" Republicans. The president's son responded by saying he was "realistic," arguing Manchin will run ads about the mine disaster.
Republicans see West Virginia as a key opportunity to pick up a Senate seat as the party tries to keep or expand its 51-49 seat majority in the chamber. Trump won the state by about 40 points in 2016.