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Campaign Mitch: McConnell triumphs in West Virginia

CHARLESTON, W.VA — The Republican Party establishment struck back on Tuesday, delivering a punishing defeat of ex-con Don Blankenship.

The coal baron who attacked Mitch McConnell like he was on the ballot — including with racially-tinged ads targeting the Chinese roots of Elaine Chao, the Senate leader’s wife — placed a distant third in the West Virginia Senate GOP primary. The weak finish, coming after late fears among rival campaigns that Blankenship was surging down the home stretch, amounts to an unqualified win for McConnell after a rough election cycle so far.

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Most tangibly, the outcome keeps a key potential pickup for Republicans in play for the GOP. The winner, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, will take on Democratic Joe Manchin this fall in what’s expected to be a competitive race; Republicans had labeled Blankenship a surefire general election loser.

But it also gave McConnell and the battered GOP establishment some much-needed bragging rights. Five months after the party’s embarrassing defeat in the Alabama special election at the hands of Roy Moore, McConnell’s political team was determined to avoid the same result.

Over the final month of the West Virginia contest a super PAC aligned with the Senate leader mobilized and savaged Blankenship with $ 1.3 million in TV attack ads, some of which highlighted his criminal background. The spots were produced by McConnell ally Larry McCarthy, the creator of the famed Willie Horton ad that helped to sink Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential bid.

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday night, Blankenship pointed to a number of factors that had led to his defeat, including the president’s Monday morning tweet urging West Virginia primary voters to reject the coal magnate.

But Blankenship also highlighted the super PAC offensive. He pointed out that after leaving prison last year he waged a TV ad campaign aimed at clearing his name and presenting his version of what transpired at Upper Big Branch, the mine that Massey’s company owned where 29 miners died in 2010.

The McConnell group’s spots, he said, had undercut his case.

“I think they had an impact,” Blankenship said. “I did everything I could to let them know what happened.“

The ex-prisoner, who in recent days had guaranteed victory, admitted he misread the race.

“I felt really good about it. I’m very surprised, not just about the loss, but at this point, the size of the loss,” he said.

For McConnell, there was also a personal dimension to the West Virginia race. The GOP leader’s family came under withering attack from Blankenship, at times in racial terms. During the closing days of the contest, Blankenship aired commercials 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, Taiwan-born Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Don Blankenship

Blankenship also ran ads saying that McConnell’s “China family has given him tens of millions of dollars.”

The ads were designed to tap into anti-establishment sentiment that has roiled Republican politics across the country, including in Alabama, where Moore waged a vigorous anti-McConnell campaign. A Blankenship win, many senior Republicans worried, would have encouraged other primary candidates to take a similar anti-McConnell approach in primaries.

Yet as he addressed supporters in a concession speech on Tuesday evening, Blankenship was pressed on whether the ads had backfired.

“I’m being asked, of course, whether some of the things we did — whether it’s ‘cocaine Mitch’ or whether it’s some of the other criticisms of Mitch McConnell or ‘China people’ made the difference,” he said. “I really don’t think so.”

For McConnell, Tuesday’s outcome was never a certainty. In the weeks leading up to the primary, he expressed profound concern to associates about the prospect of Blankenship winning. The splintered Republican field, among other dynamics in the race, deeply worried the leader.

Over the weekend, McConnell spoke by phone with the president about the race. Among the topics that arose on the call were Blankenship’s searing anti-McConnell ads.

As the votes poured in, McConnell’s team took a victory lap they never got to take after Alabama.

“Don Blankenship played the race card and West Virginia Republicans flipped it back in his face,” Steven Law, a McConnell political lieutenant and the president of the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, said in a statement.

On Twitter, his campaign team uploaded an image to Twitter of the GOP leader surrounded by a haze of cocaine dust.

“Thanks for playing, Don,” McConnell says in the caption.

Blankenship’s defeat, senior Republicans believe, keeps the West Virginia seat in play for the fall. Manchin, a former governor who has served in the Senate since 2010, faces the hurdle of running for reelection in state that President Donald Trump won by more than 40 points.

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The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund had all but written off playing in a West Virginia general election with Blankenship as the nominee. But after the results became final, the group released a statement declaring that, “We look forward to standing shoulder to shoulder with Patrick Morrisey to defeat Joe Manchin this November.”

As he stood before a deflated crowd of supporters at a Charleston Marriott, Blankenship — as he did so often during the campaign — portrayed himself as a consummate underdog who was staring down Washington.

While the result was far from what he wanted, he seemed pleased that he succeeded in putting a scare into national Republicans.

“We ran against the establishment, and the establishment isn’t going to give up their position very easily,” he said. “But just imagine what we did running against the entire establishment.”

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