Donald "Don" Blankenship, former chief executive officer of Massey Energy Co., center, and his attorney, left, exit the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston, W. Va., on Dec. 3, 2015.
Photo by Calvin Mattheis/Bloomberg/Getty

Why some GOP leaders want Blankenship to lose in West Virginia

Updated

Traditionally, candidates for elected office worry about the proverbial skeletons in their closet, fearful that voters won’t support politicians burdened by ugly controversies. Perhaps it’s time the political world overhaul its assumptions in this area.

In Florida, for example, Rick Scott’s claim to fame was a massive Medicare fraud scandal. Voters nevertheless elected him governor – twice – and he’ll soon launch a U.S. Senate campaign. A few years later, Donald Trump faced all kinds of brutal scandals, and Americans nevertheless sort of elected him president.

But there has to be some limits, right? Don Blankenship is testing those assumptions in ways that are almost hard to believe.

For those who need a refresher, Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, was sentenced to federal prison a couple of years ago for his role in a deadly West Virginia coal mine explosion. As NBC News’ Pete Williams reported at the time, “A jury in federal court convicted Blankenship in December of conspiring to willfully violate mine safety standards, connected to an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 that killed 29 men.”

Prosecutors alleged – and jurors agreed – that Blankenship willfully ignored mine safety laws. “He made a conscious, cold-blooded decision to gamble with the lives of the men and women who worked for him,” prosecutors said in their pre-sentence filings.

Blankenship, who’s long been a major Republican donor, is no longer behind bars – and he’s instead on the campaign trail, running a GOP campaign for the U.S. Senate.

And before you think no one would possibly vote for such a candidate, Politico reported last week that Blankenship’s candidacy is “skyrocketing.”

National Republicans – on the heels of the Roy Moore and Rick Saccone debacles – worry they’re staring down their latest potential midterm election fiasco: coal baron and recent federal prisoner Don Blankenship.

With Blankenship skyrocketing in the West Virginia Republican Senate primary and blanketing the airwaves with ads assailing his fractured field of rivals as career politicians, senior party officials are wrestling with how, or even whether, to intervene. Many of them are convinced that Blankenship, who served a one-year sentence after the deadly 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine, would be a surefire loser against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin – and potentially become a national stain for the party.

Last month, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, was asked about Blankenship’s chances. “Has he been out of house arrest?” Gardner replied.

That was probably intended to be funny, but no one’s laughing anymore.

Politico had a follow-up report on Blankenship yesterday, taking a closer look at how and why he’s doing well.

I get a hint of an answer at the end of Blankenship’s town hall in Weirton, when I spoke to the Rev. Becky Deitch, chairwoman of the Brooke County GOP. She was eating her lunch with a friend, and she told me she’s ready to vote for Blankenship after hearing him out. “The common man doesn’t want another politician,” she said. “I could tell from his handshake. He’s real.”

I asked her about the deaths at Upper Big Branch, but she brushed it off.

“Most of us should be in jail for the things we do,” she said. “We just haven’t been caught. No one’s gone after us.”

In 2016, I saw a handful of interviews with conservative voters who seemed to recognize Donald Trump as a con man, but they nevertheless saw him as their con man.

I get the feeling this sentiment hasn’t faded yet – and it’s now being applied to other Trump-like candidates.