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Ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship Will Try for a Senate Seat in Coal Country

Blankenship has spent the last nine months in jail.

Just when you think the GOP has scraped the bottom of the barrel with political candidates — like, say, Roy Moore – they manage to surprise us again. Democrat Joe Manchin’s competitor in the race for one of West Virginia’s senate seats is none other than Don Blankenship.

If his name doesn’t ring a bell, that might be because Blankenship has spent the last nine months in jail. He’s the disgraced former CEO of Massey Energy, as in, the energy company responsible for a coal mining disaster that killed 29 people in 2010. The company had racked up over one thousand warnings about unsafe conditions prior to the incident.

West Virginia is coal country, so is it really a good move for a man who became the public figurehead of a horrific mining disaster to run for US Senate? Astoundingly, on at least some campaign stops, Blankenship has found support.

Massey isn’t winning any Democratic hearts and even Republicans are giving him a frosty reception, but in an era of extreme partisan politics, Politico found that some voters were at least open to Massey’s candidacy.

Let’s be clear: The Republican primary in West Virginia is very crowded, with a number of politicians jockeying for position in the hopes of unseating Senator Joe Manchin. Manchin hasn’t been a crowd favorite, with some Democrats frustrated by what they perceive to be relatively centrist politics — but he’s representing a relatively conservative state.

West Virginia has deep economic, cultural, and social ties to coal, all factors that could influence decisions at the polls; Blankenship actually played a role in propagating the myth that the Obama administration was waging a “war on coal,” and that helped sway sentiments among voters.

Blankenship is even using the mining disaster to his advantage, as cold as that sounds. He’s positioning himself as an anti-establishment candidate who wants to take down corruption and wastefulness in Washington. He’s arguing that “natural causes” and the meddling of agencies like the Mine Safety and Health Administration are at blame for the explosion. If he’s elected, Blakenship contends that West Virginia can cut through red tape and put an end to “interference” from the federal government.

Coming from a man who once referred to himself as a “political prisoner,” it’s clear that Massey is hoping to capture the hearts of voters who are dissatisfied with the federal government. And in West Virginia, where coal can be a complicated and emotional topic, his experience may work both for and against him — some may view Blakenship as someone with real-world knowledge of issues facing the energy, while others may see him as a key culprit in a series of bad decisions that endangered the lives of miners at the Big Branch mine.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and US Representative Evan Jenkins will be Blakenship’s main competition in the primary race, and we’ll likely be hearing from all three of them over the next few months in what will surely be a charged primary.