Blankenship Vows Third-Party Bid in West Virginia Senate Race

(Bloomberg) -- Former West Virginia coal executive Don Blankenship said he’ll mount a third-party bid for the U.S. Senate after losing in the state’s Republican primary, a move that if allowed by the courts could upend GOP attempts to unseat Democrat Joe Manchin.

Blankenship, who spent a year in prison on a criminal conviction after a 2010 mine explosion killed 29 workers and made racially tinged attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell during the primary campaign, said he has accepted the nomination of the West Virginia Constitution Party to run in the November general election.

He finished third behind state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Representative Evan Jenkins in West Virginia’s May 8 GOP primary. The closely watched race drew the intervention of President Donald Trump, who warned West Virginia Republicans that Blankenship couldn’t win the general election against Manchin.

However, West Virginia has a so-called sore loser law, which prohibits the losing candidates in a primary for a recognized political party from changing registration to a minor party to run in the general election. Blankenship indicated he will contest the law, saying in his statement, “we are confident that -- if challenged -- our legal position will prevail, absent a politically motivated decision by the courts.”

The sore-loser law will probably keep Blankenship from pursuing his new strategy, said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

“It will be hard for him to be successful,” in challenging the law, Duffy said. If he were to start a write-in campaign, that could “absolutely” make Blankenship a spoiler in the race and help boost Manchin’s prospects, but Blankenship almost certainly couldn’t win, she said.

A top political adviser to McConnell said he’s unlikely to succeed.

“It’s equivalent to an announcement that he’s going to become the man in the moon,” said Josh Holmes, McConnell’s former chief of staff who advises him on campaign strategy. “I’m not sure there has ever been a ’sore loser’ statute written more specifically to prevent precisely what he announced.”

Melody Potter, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party, said the state party has no comment about Blankenship’s announcement.

Even if Blankenship is unsuccessful in getting on the November ballot, a court fight would serve as a distraction for the Republican Party and would risk alienating a portion of the GOP electorate. Blankenship’s anti-establishment platform drew 20 percent of the primary vote.

Blankenship suggested that same anti-establishment theme will be central to his candidacy, if it’s allowed to go forward.

"This time we won’t get surprised by the lying establishment,” Blankenship said in his statement. “We were assured by White House political staff that they would not interfere in the primary election. Obviously, that turned out not to be true. Now that we know that the establishment will lie and resort to anything else necessary to defeat me, we are better prepared than before.”

Trump won West Virginia in 2016 with 68 percent of the vote, and that has made Manchin a main target of Republicans seeking to hold or expand their 51-49 majority in the Senate. Manchin is one of 10 Democratic senators seeking re-election in a state Trump won.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.