National Republicans are quietly making a major push to block controversial coal baron and ex-con Don Blankenship from becoming their party’s nominee in the West Virginia Senate race, amidst growing fears that he could cost them a shot at Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV).
A newly minted super-PAC with national GOP ties, Mountain Families, has unleashed a TV campaign attacking Blankenship for poisoning local drinking water with “toxic coal slurry” even as he built a separate water system for his own mansion, the opening salvo in what will likely be a furious effort to keep him from winning the GOP nomination May 8.
The attacks come amidst building GOP panic that the self-funding Blankenship will spend his way to the nomination in spite of his massive political baggage, as his two main opponents, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV) and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), haven’t laid a finger on him with just weeks to go until the election.
Blankenship would be a nightmare of a nominee for the GOP. He’s been out of prison for less than a year after serving a sentence for willfully violating safety regulations at his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine, leading to an explosion that killed 29 employees — the worst mining accident in the U.S. in four decades. The incident was the latest in a string of Massey safety violations, leading Rolling Stone to dub him “the dark lord of coal country” in a 2010 story.
His shocking rise has Republicans in West Virginia and D.C. worrying he could triumph next month and cost them another winnable race in the fall while embarrassing the state.
“If the election was held today, Don would win,” one plugged-in West Virginia Republican told TPM late last week. “Alabama gave us Roy Moore. Now West Virginia’s saying ‘hold my beer.'”
Blankenship has sought to turn his conviction into a positive in the race, painting himself as a political prisoner and arguing that the conviction was a set-up by the Obama Justice Department, Hillary Clinton and Manchin, who was governor at the time of the 2010 accident and said Blankenship had “blood on his hands.” In Blankenship’s version of the story, the Mine Safety and Health Administration forced his company, Massey Energy, to use a defective ventilation system, then turned him into a convenient political scapegoat after the disaster.
There’s scant evidence that’s true. A jury trial found Blankenship and Massey systematically refused to follow safety regulations at the mine, leading to a buildup of methane gas and coal dust that caused the deadly explosion, and multiple independent investigations have found no evidence of Blankenship’s claims.
But Blankenship has pushed hard on that tale with $2 million in TV ad spending, a 67-page manifesto and regular speeches across the state in his affectless drawl. And he’s got a seasoned campaign staff around him — many of the same people who helped him flip the state from blue to red in the last 15 years as the state’s largest GOP donor, and essentially buy a state Supreme Court seat a decade ago.
His anti-Obama conspiracy theory plays well in a state where the former president is so hated that a convicted felon nearly beat him in the Democratic primary in 2012. And it’s compelling even to some who back his opponents.
“There’s a feeling among some in the state that he got a raw deal in being sent to jail, that the government was involved rather than Massey Energy,” former West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney told TPM.
McKinney, who backs Jenkins, nonetheless said he believed Blankenship.
“Don has stated unequivocally that they made them change the airflow in that mine and that’s what led to that tragedy. I’m not a coal miner, I’m a urologist, but he makes a very convincing argument about it,” he said.
Views like McKinney’s help explain how Blankenship has shocked local and national observers with a solid showing in the few public polls of the race.
In internal surveys Jenkins and Morrisey released more than a month ago, Blankenship was within striking distance of first place (though each candidate’s poll had him in the lead). No numbers have been released since, and most West Virginia Republicans believe he has the lead right now after vastly outspending his two opponents on the airwaves.
National Republicans have signaled they won’t lift a finger to help Blankenship if he wins, while imploring voters not to pick him.
“I’m not sure if he can even vote. Do they let ankle bracelets get out of the house?” quipped National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (R-CO) when TPM asked about Blankenship’s chances. “West Virginia will do the right thing and send someone who can actually win.”
The White House has sent similar signals as to its preferences — President Trump recently had both Morissey and Jenkins sitting nearby at a recent official trip to the state, while Blankenship’s invitation was lost in the mail.
But Gardner told TPM that the NRSC wouldn’t get directly involved, conserving its own limited resources and looking to avoid another anti-establishment backlash like the one that helped Moore clinch the nomination in Alabama last fall.
“The last thing West Virginians want is the senatorial committee telling them what they should want,” he said.
In spite of Blankenship’s rise, neither of his opponents have leveled any real attacks against him, focusing instead on using their much more limited resources to tout their own credentials and tear each other down. That puzzling pattern comes in spite of his own ads attacking Jenkins for his Democratic past and Morrisey for being a carpetbagger with a D.C. lobbyist wife.
The pair seemed caught off-guard by Blankenship’s rise, but in recent weeks it’s been unclear why they were still holding their fire — whether they were worried that a shot at the deep-pocketed and ruthless Blankenship would trigger a heavy barrage of attacks in response, or whether they were simply waiting for outside help.
That cavalry has finally arrived, though it’s unclear if it’ll be enough. Mountain Families, a shadowy group run by former RNC senior staffer Ben Ottenhoff, who last fall worked with a super-PAC associated with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to try to stop Moore, has dropped $650,000 in the initial ad buy, a heavy rotation for the next week-plus in the inexpensive state. Ottenhoff didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Blankenship moved to turn those attacks to his advantage.
“The Republican Party swampers in Washington have come to the surface to oppose my candidacy for the U.S. Senate. They are swamp creatures who pretend to be conservatives but are instead liberal big spenders. We welcome the fact that they are showing themselves to be what they truly are,” he said in a Monday statement.
Trump won the state by a whopping 42-point margin in 2016, his second-largest advantage of any state in the country. And while Manchin’s strong personal brand and the promise of a good year for Democrats make him a tough out, recent polls suggest he’s slipped some at home and could be vulnerable in a race against Jenkins or Morrisey.
Manchin refused to say who he’d prefer to face in the fall — “Whoever the Republicans put up is who we’re going to run against, I’m not getting involved in their primary at all,” he told TPM — but Democrats and Republicans agree that Blankenship and his baggage would obviously give Manchin a huge boost in what would otherwise be a tough race.
“It should be the easier race for Joe” if Blankenship emerges, former Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) told TPM. “We’re talking about people’s lives here in Blankenship’s case, people’s lives that were lost, for which he was convicted of being the guilty party.”
Morrisey has looked to position himself as the right-wing outsider in the campaign — his latest ad features a literal West Virginia mountain dropping on the U.S. capitol.
I’m running for U.S. Senate not to just change Washington, but to blow it up and reinvent it.
“When you look at Don Blankenship’s record there’s the obvious prison record. When you look at Evan Jenkins you can see his years as a Democrat,” said Morrisey spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik. “And when you look at Patrick Morrisey you can look at his six years as attorney general. … He’s really been there on the front lines of every major conservative battle.”
Jenkins has also on bear-hugged Trump, while touting his social conservatism and blasting Morrisey as a carpet-bagger.
Jenkins spokesman Andy Sere said his boss still leads, arguing he’s “the only person in this race who has supported President Trump since day one, and is actually working with the President to drain the swamp and protect our West Virginia values.”
He’s expected to do particularly well in his congressional district in the southern part of the state, the heart of coal country — and the site of the UBB accident. Observers say that that Morrisey and Blankenship share an anti-establishment base, and if one drops the other will benefit, and could win. If they stay roughly equal, Jenkins could pull off a victory with more moderate votes.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) told TPM it was a “very competitive race” that any of the candidates could win.
And that could lead to disaster for the GOP.
Former Wheeling Mayor Andy McKenzie (R), a Jenkins supporter, told TPM he’d gladly vote for Morrisey if he prevails — but would vote for Manchin if Blankenship is the nominee. And he thinks many others would follow suit.
“He has a checkered past, at best,” he said. “The race is over if he wins the primary. The Republicans can basically concede to the Democrats.”
A group of heavy-hitting Democratic former lawmakers are banding together to help their party try to recover a foothold in the rural areas they once represented.
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), former Agriculture Secretary and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D), former Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and former Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) are launching Rural Forward, an organization to advocate progressive ideas in rural communities and rebuild Democrats’ standing in parts of the country where they’ve been decimated over the last decade.
The organization, first unveiled to TPM, will be helmed by Etheridge, with the others serving as honorary co-chairs. Brad Woodhouse, a former Etheridge staffer who went on to serve as communications director of the Democratic National Committee and run American Bridge, will serve as senior adviser, with former Iowa state Rep. John Whitaker (D) as executive director and John Davis, a veteran of a number of Iowa races as well as the John Edwards presidential campaign, pitching in as well.
Those involved recognize it’s a steep challenge for Democrats to recover in rural areas – and that the group’s launch is a small first step towards meeting it.
“A lot of the states that have gone bright red used to be bright purple, and we want to make them purple again and we think there’s an opportunity to do that. But we need an agenda, we need candidates, we need just about everything to rejuvenate the party in these places,” Daschle told TPM. “This isn’t going to happen overnight, although Mr. Trump may be helping us more than we realize.”
The group’s initial goals are fairly modest, in keeping with their limited resources: organize town halls, help communicate how Democratic priorities like infrastructure investment and rural broadband expansion help rural communities, partner with local advocates to provide them with organizing tools. Its early efforts will be focused in states where the organizers have personal ties, like North Carolina, Iowa and Minnesota.
“We’re doing this right now with duct tape and baling wire. We’ve raised thousands of dollars, this isn’t going to be in the millions, it’s going to be earned media and educational as opposed to ads,” said Woodhouse. “We want to get the ball rolling. We’re taking the long view of this work.”
They’re betting that a renewed focus on pocketbook issues can help lead a Democratic recovery in rural areas across the country, even as culture wars burn as hot as ever in the political sphere due to Trump.
The organization is a 501(C)4, so can’t directly focus on elections. But whether they can have some success is critical for 2018, as well as going forward. Democrats will need to pick up some rural House seats to capture control of the lower chamber, and are defending 10 Senate seats in states Trump won that have large rural populations, including Montana, North Dakota, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri and Ohio.
“These members from Montana or North Dakota, they’re flying by themselves, there’s very little infrastructure to help them trumpet their values. We want to help provide whatever it is, talking points and fact sheets, policy material and analysis,” said Woodhouse.
The group’s leaders share one thing in common: They’ve all won tough races in rural-heavy states and districts. But with the exception of Vilsack, the rest eventually lost reelection as their party brand was too much to overcome in tough Democratic years.
Democrats’ rural erosion has been happening for decades, but accelerated in the Obama era. Etheridge, a former part-time farmer, was one of many rural House Democrats to get wiped out in the 2010 wave. Landrieu was one of many rural-state Democratic senators who faced a similar fate in 2014. Trump’s election marked a new low for rural Democrats, who got shellacked in parts of the country like the Upper Mississippi River Valley in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin where they’d long had strong support, as well as rural areas across the nation.
As Democrats have been washed out of those areas, the party has become increasingly dominated by coastal, urban and suburban leaders who haven’t tried as hard to work the heartland for support.
“It’s going to be hard. The trend is the other way, the party committees have really gone in the other direction too, in some places by necessity,” said Woodhouse.
But with Trump’s numbers sagging across the board (even though they’re not nearly as bad in less populated areas), Democrats see an opportunity to bounce back. And they think he’s giving them opportunities with things like his trade war with China, which risks badly hurting farmers who would face the brunt of retaliatory tariffs, or the GOP push to end Obamacare, which would have put rural hospitals in a bind.
“We think the longer he has the opportunity to show his true priorities, the more likely it is that we’re going to one again demonstrate a resurgence and a real opportunity to develop a strong two-party system,” Daschle said.
Now, current and former members of Congress and former department officials tell TPM that two top Trump political appointees at the department — at least one of whom played a key role in the reassignments — have long been hostile to Native concerns. Both officials, Deputy Secretary David Bernhardt, the department’s second in command, and Associate Deputy Secretary Jim Cason, served in top DOI posts during the George W. Bush administration, at a time of intense conflict between the agency and Native American tribes.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) said he won’t run against House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) to become House speaker, lowering the likelihood for a direct conflict between the House’s top two remaining Republicans for the top slot.
“I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin,” Scalise said when asked on Fox News Thursday afternoon. “He and I are good friends.”
Those remarks suggest there won’t be all-out war between the two powerful Republicans in the wake of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) sudden decision to announce his retirement on Wednesday.
The comments don’t necessarily take Scalise out of the running to lead the party, however. McCarthy, if he takes another shot at becoming speaker, still needs to lock in the votes of the vast majority of his conference – and if he falls short, Scalise could be the backup option for a number of lawmakers. Both have been quietly working hard to see where they stand with the conference, and shore up support in case of a leadership battle.
It appears at this point as though the next leader won’t be chosen until after the November election. At that point, the calculus would be quite different depending on how things go for the GOP this fall. If Republicans lose the majority, that likely means many of the moderate members who would be more likely to back McCarthy will be gone. On the other hand, winning the position of minority leader only needs the support of more than half the conference, rather than the near-unified party support needed to become speaker that McCarthy failed to garner when he tried to take that job when Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) retired.
Scalise clears the way for McCarthy to become speaker. “I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin,” he tells @FoxNews. “He and I are good friends.” https://t.co/Cqeteb1F0w
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is leaving. Former state chairman Reince Priebus is gone. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), the big cheese, stands alone — and may face an expiration date in November.
Ryan’s sudden retirement announcement removes the second of Wisconsin’s hulking conservative figures of the last decade from the political battlefield in a period of months after Priebus’ ignominious ouster from the White House. That, coupled with signs of a building Democratic wave in Wisconsin and nationally, has some in the state party worried they’re seeing the end of a period of conservative dominance in the swing state that covered the Obama era.
“It definitely feels like this era is coming to an end,” one Wisconsin Republican strategist told TPM. “Losing Paul Ryan knocks out one of the legs of the tripod that’s held Wisconsin Republicans up for so long, after the loss of Priebus knocked out another. … There’s probably going to be a blue wave.”
The developments have long-demoralized Democrats feeling chipper for the first time in years.
“Going, going, gone! Reince is gone, Ryan’s going and Mr. Walker knows he’s in for a dogfight,” Joe Zepecki, a top Democratic strategist in the state, giddily told TPM on Wednesday.
Ryan was a key player in the conservative revolution in Wisconsin, turning a swing state with a powerful union presence and long history of populist politicians from both parties into a right-wing policy bastion over the last eight years. He did so alongside then-state Republican Party Chairman Reince Priebus – and Scott Walker, who rose from Milwaukee County executive to become one of the nation’s most polarizing and well-known governors of the last decade.
Walker captured the governorship in a close 2010 race, and with unified control of the state legislature proceeded to gut public unions in the state, a deeply polarizing act that led to a failed attempt to recall him from office. Demoralized Democrats failed to defeat him again in 2014, and saw their power fade across the state, with President Obama’s 2o12 win in the state the sole bright spot in a decade of misery. Last election cycle was the roughest blow to date, as President Trump became the first GOP nominee to carry the state in 32 years after Hillary Clinton failed to campaign in the state, and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) pulled off a surprising reelection victory after being left for dead by his own party earlier in the year.
Priebus moved on to an impressive reign heading the Republican National Committee, became President Trump’s first chief of staff – and was unceremoniously pushed aside last year. Now Ryan has decided to follow his old ally out of politics.
Walker’s the last man standing – and there are signs that the Democratic resurgence simmering across the country will give him the toughest fight of his career.
Just weeks ago, a liberal candidate won a seat on the state Supreme Court by a double-digit electoral margin, prompting Walker to warn of a “Blue wave” building in the state. The victory was the first time a non-incumbent liberal justice had won a seat in more than two decades in the state.
Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI. The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.
“The Supreme Court race was the canary in the cave, a signal, and the canary died, so now we have to figure things out,” Brandon Scholz, a Wisconsin Republican strategist with ties to Walker and Ryan, told TPM. “That was a big wakeup call.”
And it came on the heels of a big Democratic upset in a northwestern Wisconsin state senate seat that Democrats hadn’t held in 17 years.
Those results rattled Republicans across the state, who worry the tide may be turning on them after an impressive eight-year run.
Republicans admit that with Ryan gone, his GOP-leaning seat could be competitive this fall. They’re even more worried about Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-WI), a polarizing figure in a swing district who has less campaign cash than his Democratic challenger. They say even Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) could be in for a real fight, and are worried about losing the state senate as well, while many aren’t too bullish about defeating Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), the state’s lone statewide Democratic office-holder, this fall.
But Walker is the big prize. He saw his standing plummet in the state after his failed presidential run, and while his numbers have bounced back he’s still upside down in most recent polling of the state.
Democrats have a late and crowded primary, the eventual winner will face a major cash deficit heading into the election against Walker, and Republicans at least aren’t too scared of any of the people running to face Walker — “A blue wave doesn’t make a C-level candidate an A-level candidate,” said Scholz. But for the first time in years, Democrats are feeling bullish about their chances to seize back control of the key swing state.
“It is certainly an exciting time to be a Wisconsin Democrat,” said Zepecki.
The reassignment of dozens of senior career Interior Department (DOI) officials last year may have violated federal law, a damning internal report released Wednesday found. But investigators with the DOI Inspector General’s office said they were unable to say definitively because the agency failed to properly document their reasons for ousting the employees.
“Absent documentation, we could not independently determine whether or not the ERB complied with the Federal legal requirements,” said the report, referring to a board of made up of Trump administration appointees at the agency.
The report did determine, however, that the board did not properly consider the officials’ qualifications, time in office, or other valid criteria when selecting them to be forced out of their jobs.
A routine budget hearing became heated when Democrats challenged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the reassignment of nearly a dozen senior Native American employees. TPM first reported last week that Native Americans made up a full third of the officials pushed out of their positions in a major reshuffling last summer.
President Donald Trump fired off several tweets early Wednesday morning insisting that he is “calm and calculated” after several reports on Tuesday detailed Trump’s anger following the FBI raid on his longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen.
Trump publicly fumed over the raid on Cohen’s residences and office on Monday, calling the FBI’s move “an attack on our country,” and has reportedly continued to vent about the Cohen raid and special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe behind closed doors. Though Trump insisted in his tweets that he has been calmly going about his presidential duties, he again lashed out at the FBI for the “unthinkable” raid on Cohen and defended his need to “fight back” against the Russia probes.
So much Fake News about what is going on in the White House. Very calm and calculated with a big focus on open and fair trade with China, the coming North Korea meeting and, of course, the vicious gas attack in Syria. Feels great to have Bolton & Larry K on board. I (we) are
….doing things that nobody thought possible, despite the never ending and corrupt Russia Investigation, which takes tremendous time and focus. No Collusion or Obstruction (other than I fight back), so now they do the Unthinkable, and RAID a lawyers office for information! BAD!
Trump’s unhappiness with the Mueller investigation has long been simmering, and the news of the FBI raid on his longtime lawyer and fixer reportedly sent the President over the edge. Two people close to the West Wing told the New York Times that Trump was close to a “meltdown” on Tuesday. White House aides told the Times that they were worried Trump would fire Mueller.
The President told advisers over the weekend that he wanted to fire Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and FBI Director Christopher Wray, according to the New York Times. His frustration with leadership at the Justice Department only grew after the Cohen raid, and he trained his ire on Rosenstein, the DOJ official who oversees the Mueller probe and who reportedly signed off on the Cohen raid.
Trump is now considering firing Rosenstein, a move he’s entertained before, sources told CNN. Aides also told the New York Times that they believe Trump is considering firing Rosenstein.
The President is also reconsidering whether he will sit for an interview with Mueller’s team, a White House official told CNN.
Congressional Republicans returned Tuesday from a two-week recess to President Trump fuming about a raid on his personal attorney’s office and new reports that he will move to terminate the Russia investigation by firing either Special Counsel Robert Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
A small handful of lawmakers are attempting to revive sidelined legislation that would protect Mueller from Trump. But just hours before reports came to light that Trump sought to fire Mueller in December, most GOP senators were shrugging the matter off entirely, insisting the President’s angry words were just words.
Democrats, though they don’t have the power to call hearings or to bring bills to floor, are attempting to create a sense of urgency on Capitol Hill and spur their GOP colleagues to action, warning that firing either Mueller or Rosenstein would be an impeachable offense.
Thanks to the GOP tax bill, the individual mandate penalty for not purchasing health insurance will be no more as of 2019. But that’s apparently not soon enough for the Trump administration. The Department of Health and Human Services released a new rule late Monday afternoon saying that people who live in counties with only one insurance company on the individual market can qualify for a “hardship exemption” and won’t be penalized on their 2018 taxes.