TRIADELPHIA, W.Va.— On a recent Thursday afternoon, less than nine months after he was released from prison for his role in the worst U.S. mine explosion in the past 40 years, Don Blankenship made his first campaign stop of the day at a shopping center in the skinny spike of West Virginia’s northern panhandle. For 25 minutes, he delivered an anti-government assault, railing against the “District of Corruption” and demanding drug tests “for as many officials as possible,” everyone from judges to members of Congress, which he believes would lead to dozens of high-level government employees losing their jobs.
His vehement, if soft-spoken, speech was received enthusiastically by the one person in the audience who was not a member of his staff, a reporter covering the event or a tracker paid by Blankenship’s opponents to videotape the event. The middle-aged woman told Blankenship she liked what he had to say, and she’d be supporting him in the primary. For months, Blankenship has been appearing at these town halls (he wants to do at least one in all 55 counties in West Virginia) in a quest to unseat second-term Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin. The spreads of food have always been lavish, even if the crowds haven‘t.
Admittedly, this part of the state was not his power base when he was the bottom-line-driven CEO of Massey Energy, one of the state’s largest mining companies. (“I used to come up here to sell coal,” he told me later in an interview. “Before Obama.”) But the almost nonexistent turnout seemed about right for a man who just three years ago had a statewide approval rating of 10 percent, lower even than Congress, the standard for disdain. In 2015, when he was sentenced to a year in prison on a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety standards in the 2010 explosion that killed 29 men at the Upper Big Branch mine, three-fifths of people surveyed thought the judge should have put him away for longer.
Initially, Blankenship had told prison officials that upon his release he planned to move to Nevada, where his girlfriend lives. Instead, on January 23 he signed the papers to challenge Manchin. A 67-page manifesto he had written in prison decrying his political persecution by the Obama Justice Department effectively became his political platform. The idea that a former inmate who many view as an unrepentant murderer would dare to run for Senate seemed laughable at first, even to members of his own party.
“Has he been out of house arrest?” Colorado Senator Cory Gardner, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in February when asked whether he worries about Blankenship winning the GOP primary. “We’re talking about a guy who should still be in jail,” says Phil Smith, director of governmental affairs for the United Mine Workers of America, which has clashed with Blankenship since the 1980s.
“You can’t really get away from your roots,” Blankenship, 68, told me when I ask why he didn’t just retire to Nevada.
There’s more to it, of course, than just an urge to come home, although Blankenship’s attachment to West Virginia is such that he continued to live there even when running the Richmond-based Massey. Blankenship wants to settle a score. And for all his unpopularity—miners’ families have confronted him repeatedly at campaign stops—he is finding a receptive audience in a Republican Party motivated as much by hatred for Democrats as the advancement of conservative policy. (GOP leaders in Washington don’t share the enthusiasm for Blankenship, whom they consider as toxic as Roy Moore.)
“He has an ego and a pocketbook that rivals Donald Trump,” says former Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, who, like most of the politicians in the state, dealt with Blankenship when his power was at his peak. “And he’s out to rehabilitate his image.”
But operatives in both parties now say there’s no denying Blankenship is in the top tier of candidates in the race, along with Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins. The major reason? His time in prison didn’t deprive him of the fortune he earned running Massey Energy, and he spent more than $2 million on television ads before Morrisey and Jenkins’ campaigns could run their first spot on television.
But the deceptively low-key candidate with a well-earned reputation as a political brawler has a pitch seemingly perfectly designed for a Republican electorate in the era of Donald Trump. Blankenship’s foils are the same ones Trump battered on his way to winning 68 percent of the vote in West Virginia. When Blankenship mentions Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two of the most reviled Democrats in this deeply red state, it’s not just a gratuitous name-check. It’s a personal feud, one that many still-out-of-work coal miners feel just as bitterly.
“I don’t know that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and so forth hate anyone more than they hate me,” Blankenship says, noting Clinton even criticized him in her book, “What Happened.” Or, as his political consultant, Greg Thomas, put it to me: “Having the opponent’s Department of Justice put you in jail is the ultimate street cred.”
That’s assuming he can survive the primary. Both Morrisey and Jenkins have released polls in recent weeks showing Blankenship near the front of the pack, although the polls disagree on whom he’s battling for the top spot. A matchup with Manchin, a former acquaintance he blames alongside Obama for his conviction, is a far likelier and more discomfiting possibility than Republicans had ever imagined.
Why? It might just be because, like a certain billionaire turned populist, he has managed to transform his image from greedy coal baron into something approaching a victim of the Deep State, arguing an incompetent bureaucracy and a corrupt Justice Department jailed him.
“I have the knowledge and the means. I’ve done these types of things long before it could be said to be redemption,” he says when asked why he’s running. But he quickly adds: “I do think D.C.’s very corrupt. I think we’ve got a real problem. My situation, I think, is another example of DOJ misbehavior, and I think eventually that will be proven.”
One of the first things you notice about Don Blankenship is that his voice should be louder. For a man who has changed the economic, political and literal geographic landscape of West Virginia over the course of his 67 years, you expect thunder, but you get something like the sound of a midlevel manager delivering a third-quarter sales report. But that contrast is only one of many surrounding Blankenship. He’s been a hero to some of his employees, wooed them with parties, free trips to Dollywood, beer and bonuses. He’s been a villain to environmentalists and unions, the central antagonist in at least two books and countless news stories.
At times, he’s embraced his image as a villain, calling himself “the most hated man in Mingo County.” In a video on his website, a much younger Blankenship describes his ideology, a no-holds-barred capitalism. He calls himself an “American Competitionist.”
“It’s like a jungle, where a jungle is survival of the fittest,” he says in the video. “Unions, communities, people, everybody’s going to have learn and to accept that in the United States is a capitalist society. And that capitalism, from a business viewpoint, is survival of the most productive.”