Don Blankenship spent one year in prison (from May 2016 to May 2017) for conspiracy to violate safety laws. The indictment arose out of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster of 2010, though the jury acquitted him on the felony charges, convicting him only of the misdemeanor.
The coal-dust explosion on April 5, 2010 at the Upper Big Branch mine, owned by the coal company Massey Energy, killed 29 miners. Don Blankenship was the CEO of Massey at the time.
A year after the explosion, another large energy concern, Alpha Natural Resources, acquired Massey and settled the Upper Big Branch corporate criminal liability with the United States Department of Justice for $209 million. This was the largest-ever amount paid in settlement of charges arising from a mining disaster.
One might not think that a criminal conviction in any connection with the death of 29 working stiffs would be a great platform on which to campaign for high public office. But Blankenship is running for the Republican nomination to be the next U.S. Senator from West Virginia.
Republicans will choose, in the May 8 primary, among three candidates for that nomination. Both of Blankenship’s foes are both more ‘establishment’ Republicans than he: one is Patrick Morrisey (the state’s attorney general), the other is Congressman Evan Jenkins, who represents the 3d congressional district, the southwestern portion of the state.
Left Wing View
Many on the left seem eager for Blankenship to win the Republican primary, because they believe and hope that this would help the Democratic candidate, incumbent Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin for his part says that Blankenship has “blood on his hands.”
Years ago Tim Murphy, writing in Mother Jones of Blankenship as a CEO, said, “entire towns have been wiped out by Massey’s footprint” acting on “Blankenship’s gospel.” More recently, Murphy in the same forum, writing of Blankenship as a candidate, says that we are now living in a “post-Trump world, where even the most debilitating allegations can be dismissed and forgotten.”
Manchin is expected to defeat his challenger in the Democratic Party’s primary, Paula Jean Swearengin, who criticizes him from the left (from the standpoint of the ‘Sanders wing’ of the party.) But even moderate Manchin could be vulnerable to the Republican in this deep-red state. And a Republican takeover of this Senate seat would make the survival of the Republican Party’s slim Senate majority a good deal more likely than would retention of that seat by Manchin and the Democrats.
Politico describes Blankenship’s “stump speech” as standard Republican fare, praising President Trump, calling Manchin a puppet of the Democratic Party leadership, demanding an end to Common Core educational standards, and for securing the border.
Right Wing View
Polling by the Morrisey campaign places Morrisey first among the Republican candidates, Blankenship second, and Jenkins third. Jenkins’ polling places Jenkins first, Blankenship second, and Morrisey third.
An associate professor of political science at West Virginia University has said that Blankenship has a personal brand in West Virginia that has survived his criminal conviction, and that is more important than policy stances. That professor, Scott Crichlow, also says that “it doesn’t take that many voters to win” a party primary in West Virginia.
A recent letter in the Charleston Gazette-Mail suggested that many in coal country want to hear Blankenship ask for forgiveness from “those whom he seeks to vote for him.” But there has been little or nothing of remorse in Blankenship’s own references to his past during this campaign.
Instead, Blankenship contends that the government regulators are at fault for the mine explosion, and that his trial and conviction were incidents in their cover up of their own responsibility.
This conspiratorial view is what makes him seem more Trumpian than Trump, and Republicans in Washington are worried. President Donald Trump has appeared at an event with both of Blankenship’s intra-party opponents. Blankenship’s absence from that event is seen in many quarters as telling.