By Calin Brown
Don Blankenship, the former CEO and chair of Massey Energy, filed federal candidacy papers in December, officially launching his U.S. Senate campaign in West Virginia.
Blankenship’s early rhetoric fits the mold of some of the anti-establishment characters backed this election cycle by former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who’s declared a “war” on the GOP status quo. The difference in this case though is that the 67-year-old coal magnate was just released from prison.
Blankenship spent one year in federal prison on a misdemeanor count of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards following an explosion at one of Massey Energy’s West Virginia coal mines in which 29 miners were killed in 2010. He was released in May.
Now, he’s running for Senate in a state whose economy has long been fueled by coal.
On Nov. 29, a local TV station in West Virginia announced via Twitter that Blankenship would run in the state’s Republican primary. Blankenship filed his statement of candidacy a couple days later.
Eyeing the Senate seat currently held by Democrat Joe Manchin, Blankenship has entered a crowded field of Republican primary candidates, including state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, coal miner Bo Copley and U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins.
The Senate race is considered a toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report. And it could become another GOP battleground for Bannon and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) as the two back different Republican candidates. Bannon has expressed support for Morrisey while McConnell has reportedly maintained that Jenkins is his preferred choice for the race. Robert Mercer, the billionaire GOP donor affiliated with Bannon, initially donated to Jenkins’ campaign but has switched support to Morrisey.
Bannon and Mercer may have already chosen their favorites in the race, but Blankenship shares many of their anti-establishment goals. Despite having twice donated $1,000 to McConnell’s campaigns, Blankenship no longer supports the majority leader.
In an August 2014 blog post, Blankenship characterized McConnell as a “quintessential politician” who doesn’t care about the interests of the coal industry.
“If he is fighting for coal he is not very good at it,” Blankenship, a Kentucky native, wrote in his blog post.
Despite donations to state and national Republican Party committees spanning two decades, Blankenship paints himself as a political outsider. Already, he has suggested government corruption will be a cornerstone of his campaign. Other priority areas include guaranteeing Americans the right to a fair trial and free speech — priority areas inspired by his own legal battles.
Since the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010, which led to his prison time, Blankenship has railed against the U.S. Department of Labor and the government at large, which he accused of orchestrating a cover-up on the scale of Watergate.
“Politicians put me in prison for political and self-serving reasons,” he wrote from prison in a 65-page booklet titled “An American Political Prisoner.”
Blankenship may be a newcomer to this Senate race, but he’s an experienced political donor. Massey Energy, the company he led from 2000 to 2010, was also active in federal lobbying.
Between 1989 and 2014, Blankenship donated $195,200 to Republican candidates and party committees. Of this total, $31,400 went toward the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Among current members of Congress, eight have received contributions directly from Blankenship since 1989. All eight are Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski (Indiana) and Sens. Pat Toomey (Pennsylvania) and Rob Portman (Ohio).
Blankenship has had his fair share of controversy.
Praised by some in Appalachia for leading a relatively successful business for years, Blankenship has also been condemned for his disregard for his employees’ health and work conditions.
In 2010, industrial equipment in the Upper Big Branch Mine owned by Massey Energy kicked up sparks. The sparks ignited a pocket of methane, setting up a chain of explosions in the mine that killed and injured dozens of miners.
At trial following the disaster, it was revealed that Blankenship, whose company had a history of flouting regulations under his leadership, hid safety violations from federal safety inspectors.
According to grand jury testimony, Massey Energy had amassed 835 citations and accrued $900,000 worth of fines in the late 2000s for repeatedly violating mandatory federal mine safety standards.
Consequently, Blankenship initially faced up to 30 years in prison on several charges including felony conspiracy. This was later changed in 2015 to a misdemeanor charge that came with a one-year prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.
This high-profile case was not Blankenship’s first run-in with the law. Facing a $50 million fraud judgement in 2004, Blankenship, as head of Massey Energy in 2004, donated $5,000 to the political action committee West Virginians for Life, and another $2.5 million to the And for the Sake of the Kids PAC.
The latter PAC funded attack ads against then-West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Warren McGraw. After losing the election, McGraw was replaced by Brent Benjamin, a little-known attorney, who overturned the $50 million verdict in a case that inspired a John Grisham novel.
West Virginia race
As the West Virginia race heats up and an increasing number of candidates enter the race, so too have campaign contributions.
According to the latest FEC data, Jenkins had raised about $900,000 as of Dec.15, and Morrisey has raised about $675,000. Copley has yet to report contributions to his campaign. Manchin has raised close to $4 million, so far.
Blankenship has yet to receive contributions for the race, but he’s active on social media and already released several political ads. He has a Vimeo account with four followers and announced last month on Twitter that he planned to run political ads on “TV, Facebook and more,” a tweet that drew 48 mixed comments.