[This piece was originally published in the Fayette Tribune in May, 2018]
“You can’t shake hands with the devil, and say you’re only kidding.” That’s the line that came to mind when I read about an effort by West Virginia Democrats to help Don Blankenship become the Republican nominee for US Senate by running ads attacking his competition. The scheme has awful risks, and a huge downside even if it “succeeds.”
The idea is that the state will not elect Blankenship in the fall, so by helping him in the primary, the “Duty and Country PAC” will have won the general election for Joe Manchin before it even begins. The ads go negative mainly against Jenkins, and put in a few bad words against Patrick Morrisey. Polls have differed about the race, but Blankenship has made good showings in all of them and is a serious threat to win.
It shouldn’t need to be said, but here it is: if you are a Democrat in West Virginia, you don’t do Don Blankenship any favors, and you sure as heck don’t do anything that gets him closer to becoming a United States Senator. Blankenship is a criminal with blood on his hands. His election would be a catastrophe for West Virginia and it is immoral to help it happen, even indirectly.
But the hard truth is that West Virginia remains a plus-40 State for Donald Trump. Trump will campaign extremely hard for every Senate seat he thinks he can win this fall, as his political life will be at stake. A Republican has an excellent chance to win the race no matter which one wins the primary. If it is Blankenship, he will have unlimited money to spend and the team of consultants that won the state for Republicans in 2014.
Blankenship has done more to hand the Republicans control of West Virginia than any other single person. People thought he was wasting his money (and his company’s) when West Virginia went heavily blue in 2006 and 2008, but the loser then was later to win. His massive spending on Republican candidates over more than a decade finally bore fruit in 2014 when Republicans took over the Legislature, and again in 2016, when they won practically everything.
Now Blankenship plans to cut out the middleman and take power directly. If you think it is impossible for him to become a Senator, ask yourself if you thought Donald Trump would surely be President in April, 2016. Alabama nearly made Roy Moore a Senator last year, and he was credibly accused of fondling a fourteen-year-old girl when he was a district attorney. Moore lost by half of one percent. Is Blankenship as tarnished as Moore? Are you sure?
We are about to see most vicious national campaign in memory as Trump fights to hold onto the Congress. The amount of air cover the Republican nominee will have in West Virginia is going to be staggering. Moreover, Republicans have already begun to air video of Senator Manchin endorsing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, two figures who remain reviled in West Virginia. Even if you think he can survive that, you can hardly be certain of it.
In 2016, Doug Reynolds ran an excellent campaign for attorney general and found himself in a dead heat with Patrick Morrisey a few weeks out from election day. Morrisey’s campaign then ran an ad linking Reynolds to Hillary as many times as there were commercial slots to buy, right up until election day. The connection was tenuous, relying on an alleged 2007 campaign contribution, and there was certainly no video, but the ad worked, and Morrisey won by ten points. Manchin has a much bigger Hillary problem than Reynolds ever did.
So far, over half a million dollars has been spent by Democrats to try to pick the opponent Manchin wants. With a few weeks to go, another half million may well be sunk into this effort to put Blankenship within an arm’s length of the US Senate. That is a large sum in West Virginia politics and it makes me think about what Democrats are not doing with it, because the things we are not doing are the very reason we have “Don Blankenship for US Senate” to worry about in the first place.
The Republicans didn’t take over the state by intervening in Democratic primaries and making us choose unpalatable candidates. Republicans won West Virginia by convincing the voters that Republican policies would be good for them. West Virginia Democrats need a statewide campaign based on what they are going to do to help West Virginia, not a tricky strategy to pick the worst opponents they can find through anonymous advertising. This scheme of putting the words in the mouth of some PAC might seem clever now, but what happens when people don’t trust you later?
With a million dollars, West Virginia Democrats could make it clear that Republicans would have taken health insurance away from hundreds of thousands of West Virginians if they had even one more vote. With a million dollars West Virginia Democrats could make it known they will not only protect Medicare for our seniors, they will expand it to every American who doesn’t have health insurance. With a million dollars in ads, West Virginia Democrats could make sure every West Virginian knows which party supported our school teachers in their fight for decent pay, and which one forced them to strike just to receive a modest and overdue raise.
Cutting taxes on corporations and the rich as a solution to everything hasn’t helped West Virginia and even Republicans know it. People are ready to listen to a new vision. There’s a new generation waiting for a chance to rebuild West Virginia. But even an inspirational message needs a way to make itself heard, and a credible messenger to deliver it. In other words, you can spread the gospel, or shake hands with the devil, but you can’t do both.