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Blankenship surging on eve of West Virginia Senate primary

There is growing concern among Republicans that Don Blankenship, a bombastic coal baron who has spent time in prison, is surging ahead of Tuesday’s West Virginia Senate primary — and a last-minute campaign is underway to stop him.

As the tight contest hurtles to a close, four Republicans said they’d reviewed polling conducted in recent days showing Blankenship, who spent a year in jail following the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers, moving narrowly ahead of his more mainstream GOP rivals, Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

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The Republicans cautioned that the surveys, designed to offer a snapshot of the race, were conducted over a brief period of time and may be overstating Blankenship’s support.

Still, Blankenship’s rivals and other Republicans are alarmed. Many are convinced that a Blankenship win, coming just months after the disastrous Alabama Senate race, would destroy the party’s prospects of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November.

Some Republicans involved in the race said they were hoping the White House would intervene ahead of the Tuesday primary, though it remains unclear whether it will do so.

On Thursday, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., sent out a tweet asking “the people of West Virginia to make a wise decision and reject Blankenship.”

“No more fumbles like Alabama,” he added. “We need to win in November.”

Morrisey, who’d largely been ignoring Blankenship, has suddenly turned his fire on the coal baron. On Saturday, Morrisey’s campaign released a 30-second robocall to West Virginia voters blasting Blankenship over an array of issues. The call described Blankenship as a “convicted criminal” who didn’t vote for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. It also highlighted his Nevada residency.

“A vote for Blankenship is a vote to advance liberal positions, higher taxes, and abortion on-demand,” the voiceover says. “That’s because Blankenship would get crushed in November.”

On Sunday afternoon, Morrisey is slated to hold a press conference to “talk about Don Blankenship’s criminal record, his significant legal issues, and how his candidacy threatens West Virginia’s conservative agenda,” according to a media advisory his campaign sent out over the weekend.

A Blankenship strategist, Greg Thomas, shrugged off the 11th-hour assault.

“We have run hard from beginning to end and we are encouraged by the desperation we are seeing from our opposition,” he said in a text message.

National Republicans have sought to prevent Blankenship from winning the nomination. An outside group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Mountain Families PAC, has spent $ 1.3 million on a TV ad campaign targeting the former prisoner. On Friday afternoon, the group began a digital advertisement telling West Virginians, “Don’t vote Don Blankenship.”

The offensive bears similarities to the ultimately unsuccessful one the party launched against former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore in last year’s Alabama Senate race. Moore beat back the national GOP campaign against him and went on to lose the general election to Democrat Doug Jones.

Blankenship has responded in kind, launching a slash-and-burn campaign targeting McConnell.

FILE - In this March 8, 2018 file photo, California gubernatorial candidate, businessman John Cox, a Republican, discusses the state's housing problems at a conference in Sacramento, Calif. Republicans are fighting to hold their ground in strongly Democratic California. Party delegates are meeting in San Diego this weekend to consider endorsements for candidates seeking statewide offices that are all held by Democrats. The outlook is challenging. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

His scorching attacks have veered into deeply personal, even racially-charged territory.

This week, Blankenship began airing a TV commercial labeling McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” an apparent reference to a 2014 report that drugs were once found aboard a shipping vessel owned by the family of McConnell’s wife, Taiwanese-born Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Then, a few days later, Blankenship began airing another spot declaring that McConnell’s “China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.”

The president has yet to speak out against Blankenship, though earlier this spring he held a tax reform-focused event in which he sat next to Jenkins and Morrisey — a deliberate move designed to show that he preferred either of them win the nomination.

But after lining up behind losing candidates in Alabama and Pennsylvania races — electoral defeats that ultimately proved embarrassing to Trump, many Republicans are skeptical that he will forcefully repudiate Blankenship ahead of the primary.

Particularly concerning to Republicans is Blankenship’s TV spending. Over the final six days of the race, the self-funding coal baron is set to spend over $ 640,000 on commercials, according to media buying totals – more than Jenkins and Morrisey combined. Blankenship has spent over $ 2.5 million on TV ads in total, far more than his rivals.

What is also distressing, senior Republicans say, is that Jenkins and Morrisey spent nearly all of the campaign savaging each other. Further complicating matters is that a Democratic super PAC, Duty and Country, has invested $ 1.8 million targeting Jenkins in an effort to keep him from winning the GOP primary, convinced that he would pose a formidable challenge to Manchin.

The bloodbath may ultimately be to the benefit of Blankenship, who has faced far fewer incoming attacks.

Andy Seré, a Jenkins strategist, argued that Morrisey’s attacks against Jenkins “have helped Blankenship,” and that with his last-minute attacks against Blankenship, “Morrisey is scrambling to fix the mess he and his enablers made.”

“But West Virginians see through it,” Sere added. “We are confident the Schumer-Morrisey alliance will fail and Evan Jenkins will prevail.”

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