WASHINGTON — In West Virginia’s GOP Senate primary, candidate Don Blankenship is running on a different kind of record.
The former CEO of Massey Energy served a one-year sentence, ending in May 2017, for conspiring to violate mine health and safety standards in connection with the nation’s deadliest coal mining explosion in decades. Blankenship’s period of supervised release doesn’t end until May 9, the day after the primary, according to court records.
But Blankenship said he was “falsely imprisoned” by the Obama administration, and he doesn’t see that as a political liability — not to West Virginians who blame the former president for waging a war on coal and their livelihoods. To him, such an “improper” conviction can be a political asset.
It was, he noted, for former South African president Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison for fighting an apartheid government. “There are situations in history where being in prison was an advantage,” he said during a recent interview with USA TODAY. “I think that’s the case in West Virginia.”
There may have been a time in the U.S. when a candidate’s conviction — the criminal kind — represented a political deal-breaker. But this is an era in which President Trump famously claimed he could shoot someone and not lose any voters.
Blankenship is not the only 2018 candidate who is still considered viable despite legal baggage. Michael Grimm, a GOP candidate for his former New York House seat, pleaded guilty in 2014 to tax fraud, and former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an Arizona Senate candidate, was pardoned by President Trump last year for a contempt of court conviction in a racial profiling case.
“Maybe I’m wrong, but I still think a conviction for murder would prevent someone’s election,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Polls commissioned by Blankenship’s primary opponents —- Rep. Evan Jenkins and the state’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — show Blankenship, 68, is within striking distance of the lead. He is a self-funded candidate who can laugh when he says, “I don’t need any money” and blankets the airwaves with his message.
Still, his spin on his conviction could help him with hard-core Republicans looking for the most anti-establishment candidate in the race, Sabato said.
“It’s a good strategy,” Sabato said. “Take a negative and make it a positive. That’s one of the cardinal rules of politics.”
In Blankenship’s ads, coal miners credit him with keeping them safe — and employed.
“We were well paid, we had great benefits, and we never had to worry that our check would bounce,” coal miner Danny Muncy said.
But Mark Dorsey, a retired coal miner from Rivesville, said the coal miners he knows are “flabbergasted” by Blankenship’s re-emergence. They think he got off easy with a misdemeanor.
“The audacity for him to run for a public office I think is terrible,” said Dorsey, a representative of the United Mine Workers of America’s political action committee. “But if you’ve got enough money you can do anything. He ought to be in jail.”
While at Taft Correctional Institution in California, Blankenship described himself as a “political prisoner,” and he continues to fault the government for the 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 men. The Mine Safety and Health Administration blamed the company for safety violations and assessed $10.8 million in penalties. But Blankenship says a change in airflow, required by MSHA, caused the explosion.
He says the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility is reviewing his prosecution. A DOJ spokesman declined to comment.
If elected, Blankenship said he plans to work on criminal justice reform because “the power of prosecutors is out of control.”
He learned other things “on the inside” that he said will help him as a senator. For instance, his “coyote” cell mate taught him how he smuggled immigrants into the country illegally.
“I learned how to stop it,” he said. “I learned how to steal your identity, too.”
Blankenship’s candidacy is bolstered by an “anti-establishment vibe” in West Virginia, particularly from those in the southern part of the state, who don’t trust that the government was fair to him, said Patrick Hickey, an assistant professor at West Virginia University.
“He’s either hated or loved, depending on who you talk to,” Hickey said. “I don’t think there’s many neutral feelings on Don Blankenship.”
National Republicans aren’t sure whether Blankenship can win the primary, but they’re concerned that if he does, he’ll lose the general election against his likely opponent, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. Trump hasn’t weighed in on the race, but he notably sat between Jenkins and Morrisey recently at a tax reform roundtable with elected officials in West Virginia. Blankenship was not invited to the event, held on the eighth anniversary of the mine explosion.
“It’s delusional to think that spending a year in a California prison is an asset,” said Nachama Soloveichik, a Morrisey spokeswoman. “I’m not sure what planet Don is running on, but it’s not Earth, and it’s sure as heck not West Virginia. Joe Manchin would crush Don Blankenship in the fall.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently told The New York Times he doesn’t want Blankenship to win, and Politico reported Sunday that several firms with ties to a McConnell-aligned super PAC began targeting Blankenship in ads, calling him a “convicted criminal” who won’t clean up Washington. A spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-aligned super PAC, declined to comment on the ads, which are funded by “Mountain Families PAC.”
Blankenship said he is an anti-establishment candidate who has “suffered” from government regulations. He wants to tackle waste, help stop the opioid epidemic and close the borders.
It “might be a negative” if Trump endorsed one of his opponents, he said, but he doesn’t expect that to happen. Blankenship called Jenkins, a former Democrat, “little Joe,” after Manchin. And he noted that Morrisey, who lost his U.S. House bid in New Jersey in 2000, is from out of state.
“I’m telling you, they’re going to get beat,” Blankenship said. “Everybody knows everything there is to know about me. The explosion is all they can say.”
Blankenship has only been able to “move around freely” for the last few months, he said. He met a reporter recently in the lobby of the Trump International Hotel while he was in D.C. to discuss his campaign with coal property owners and the Republican National Committee.
“When I got out I was still under fairly tight regulations at the halfway house and then moved from that to probation,” he said. “You have an ankle bracelet when you first come out but not for long if you behave yourself.”
Blankenship said he met doctors and lawyers in prison and learned how to play chess from drug dealers. He got to know fellow inmates, talking with them over lunch, and he said their intelligence and demeanor surprised him.
“You would never know that they would do anything criminally,” he said. “You would think they’re the nicest guys in the world.”