GOP tries to avoid West Virginia primary disaster as it aims to take down vulnerable Democrat Manchin

Key Points
  • Republican leaders are hoping Don Blankenship, a coal baron who has targeted Mitch McConnell, will not prevail in Tuesday's West Virginia Republican Senate primary.
  • He is running against other GOP contenders Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
  • Some Republicans worry a Blankenship win would hurt their chances of beating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the most vulnerable senators in November.
Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Don Blankenship speaks at a town hall meeting at West Virginia University on March 1, 2018 in Morgantown, West Virginia.
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A Republican with personal baggage who attacks Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has a chance to win a Senate primary Tuesday and threaten the GOP's success in a winnable general election.

That potential outcome in the West Virginia Senate primary election resembles a situation Republicans already endured once recently in Alabama. On Tuesday, GOP leaders hope to see a different outcome as they try to take down Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, one of the most vulnerable senators running in November.

Running in Tuesday's race are two officials who sit largely within the Republican Party's mainstream, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. The third contender for the nomination is 68-year-old coal baron Don Blankenship, who served jail time for his role in an explosion at a Massey Energy mine that left 29 people dead.

On Thursday, Blankenship raised more eyebrows with a racially charged ad attacking McConnell and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. In the video, he alleges "swamp captain" McConnell has "created millions of jobs for China people" and gotten rich from his "China family." It sparked rebukes from McConnell allies, at least one of whom compared Blankenship to GOP candidate Roy Moore, the ex-judge who lost a Senate special election in deep-red Alabama last year as he faced accusations of sexually abusing teenagers decades ago.

Public polling in the West Virginia race has been limited, giving no clear picture of which candidate has an edge heading into Tuesday. A Fox News poll last month found 25 percent of likely voters preferred Jenkins, compared with 21 percent and 16 percent for Morrisey and Blankenship, respectively. The high proportion of undecided voters leaves the potential outcome murky as West Virginians head to the polls. A Weekly Standard report says internal polls found Blankenship winning more support and taking a narrow lead ahead of Tuesday's primary.

The GOP's ability to defeat Manchin will help to determine whether the party can keep or expand its narrow 51-seat to 49-seat edge in the Senate. Republicans have a prime opportunity: Trump won the state by more than 40 percentage points in 2016, and it is consistently among the states in which he has the highest approval rating.

On Monday, Trump took to Twitter to urge Republicans to vote for Jenkins or Morrisey, because Blankenship "can't win the General Election in your State."

Donald Trump tweet

Groups linked to McConnell have only just started to oppose Blankenship more openly, but national GOP figures have signaled more subtly they would prefer him not to represent the party in November. When Trump went to West Virginia last month for an event ostensibly about tax reform, he slammed Manchin and told an audience "you're going to have a chance to get a senator that's going to vote our program."

Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., left, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in West Virginia, talks with Phillip Carl of Warwood Tool Company during a tour of the plant in Wheeling, W.Va., on May 2, 2018.
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

He notably invited both Jenkins and Morrisey to the event, but not Blankenship. Trump told attendees to "go out and vote" in the GOP primary, but did not state a preference for either of the officials sitting on his right and left during the event.

On Thursday, the president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., more directly expressed the sentiment that many elected GOP leaders appear to hold. He tweeted that he would not endorse a specific candidate but argued Blankenship would be a "train wreck."

"I think there are two qualified, conservative and ELECTABLE candidates running and one train wreck who would guarantee another term for Joe Manchin," the younger Trump tweeted.

Trump Jr. tweet

Contenders try to distinguish themselves

Similar to certain GOP primary battles around the country, the West Virginia candidates have few distinguishing positions on major policies. They have broadly pledged to work with the president to reduce business regulations, support coal jobs, fight the opioid epidemic that has hit their state hard and support 2nd Amendment rights.

The Republicans have partly tried to set themselves apart by criticizing their rivals' personal backgrounds or trying to show they most mirror Trump. Candidates have also employed those tactics in Indiana, another pro-Trump state holding primaries Tuesday. Republicans hope to take out another vulnerable Democrat, Sen. Joe Donnelly, in that state.

Blankenship has spent more than twice as much as both of his GOP rivals in the race. He has loaned more than $3 million of his own money to his campaign. However, as of mid-April, his campaign had about $670,000 on hand, compared with more than $800,000 for both Morrisey and Jenkins' campaigns.

At a debate Monday night, the three West Virginia GOP contenders declined to support McConnell, according to ABC News. They also called for an end of the investigation into Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow.

Jenkins, a 57-year-old who has represented West Virginia's 3rd District since 2015, has tried to show he supports Trump in Congress. He, along with several other House Republicans in competitive elections this year, signed on to a letter this week nominating Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. The lawmakers say the president deserves the honor for his efforts to denuclearize North Korea.

Jenkins voted with Trump on the Republican efforts to overhaul the U.S. tax and health-care systems. But he has faced attacks from his rivals because he switched parties from Democrat to Republican in 2013. At the debate, he defended his flip, saying Democratic President Barack Obama "devastated our state and our country paid," according to ABC.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey 
Tom Williams | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Morrisey has served as West Virginia's attorney general since 2013 and touts his role in challenging Obama-era environmental regulations. He has cast himself as a conservative unafraid to stand up to establishment party leaders. Morrisey received endorsements from two GOP senators who have also tried to cultivate that brand: Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.

The attorney general has portrayed himself as a Washington outsider, in one ad showing a West Virginia mountain dropping on the nation's capital. But his past as a Washington lobbyist has diminished the imagery.

Meanwhile, Blankenship has cast himself as the candidate who has created jobs in the private sector as CEO of Massey Energy. He has downplayed the time he served in prison, stressing that he was convicted of one misdemeanor for conspiring to violate mine safety rules.

On Monday, he called the legal proceedings a "fake prosecution," according to ABC.

A threat to Manchin 

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-WV).
Getty Images

Facing a difficult re-election bid, Manchin has had to tread carefully around Trump while opposing some of his signature policies. The senator opposed both the Republican health-care and tax plans. Last month, Trump hammered Manchin for doing so.

"And he does other things that I don't like, I'll be honest with you," the president said while flanked by Jenkins and Morrisey.

The West Virginia Democrat has voted with Trump's priorities about 61 percent of the time, more than any member of his party other than Jones, according to FiveThirtyEight. In recent months, he's voted with Trump to confirm Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, support a GOP-backed immigration reform plan and repeal some regulations in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act.

Manchin has employed a strategy many Democrats trying to win in red, rural regions appear set to use: agree with Trump on some areas, but pledge to protect retirement and health-care benefits, and fight the opioid epidemic.

"I won't stop fighting to protect Medicare and Social Security for our seniors, the 200,000 West Virginians at risk of losing coverage, and to secure coal miner pensions," Manchin said in a statement ahead of Trump's visit to the state last month.

The senator faces some headwinds in the state. Forty-three percent of voters approve of Manchin, versus 44 percent who disapprove, according to an April Gallup survey. It marks a net slide of 17 points from late last year, the poll said.

Democrats believe the contested primary will help Manchin, even if Blankenship does not win. In a statement this week, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee described the West Virginia GOP primary as one that has "left candidates in key races across the country wounded and cash-strapped."

Of course, Democrats would prefer Manchin faces Blankenship in the general election, and Republicans know it. Former McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes depicted the GOP's worries on Thursday when he called Blankenship "West Virginia Roy Moore."

"This clown is a walking, talking case study for the limitation of a prison's ability to rehabilitate," he tweeted.

— Graphic by CNBC's John Schoen