Not so long ago, President Trump’s damn the torpedoes approach to Roy Moore and the Alabama Senate Race exploded in his face. Redemption came Tuesday as the president’s eleventh-hour tweets helped sink the gorilla candidacy of Don Blankenship, the foul and felonious xenophobe running in West Virginia’s senatorial Republican primary.
Privately, the president and nervous Republican Party leaders knew much more was at stake than West Virginia’s winnable Senate seat. Blankenship’s late surge threatened Republican prospects in all the upcoming mid-term elections. Some believed his potential victory would pose an existential threat to the preservation of conservative values.
For a decade, Blankenship ran the nation’s sixth largest coal company. But he ended up doing a year of hard time for his role in a tragic mining accident. Declaring himself “Trumpier than Trump,” the surly ex-con declared war on official Washington ¬— not a bad strategy given that in today’s polarized electorate, the only common ground seems to be hatred of all things Washington. But the shock and awe part of Blankenship’s message was delivered in a flurry of racially charged television ads and appearances.
Blankenship’s primary target was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Branding him as “Cocaine Mitch,” the coal mogul also attacked the wealth of the senator’s “China family.” McConnell’s wife is Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan. In 2014, Colombian authorities found cocaine on a vessel linked to her father’s shipping company.
Blankenship race-baited in similar ads, referring to “China people” and “negro people.” Of course, the ads went viral in the national media. Network’s gleefully booked him as shocking fodder. And in a seeming sequel to Roy Moore’s Nightmare on Elm Street, it looked like the unelectable Blankenship might win. Imminent, it appeared, was this: ‘Hey America — remember that Republican whacko from West Virginia come mid-term election time.’
Ignoring The Bait
In the end, though, Blankenship appealed more to West Virginian’s better angels. The Titanic missed the iceberg.
“Don Blankenship played the race card and West Virginia Republicans flipped it back in his face,” gloated Steven Law, a McConnell political lieutenant and the president of the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC. “It turns out that Blankenship’s racist dog whistle played a lot louder with Washington reporters than with West Virginia primary voters.”
Most Americans have probably never seen Mitch McConnell laugh, or even smile for that matter. But if nervous laughter could be tweeted, it would look like McConnell smiling in a cloud of cocaine dust. The Senate Leadership Fund, which has close ties to McConnell, tweeted that exact image after Blankenship’s defeat. A caption read, “Thanks for playing, Don.”
All told, much kudos has gone to McConnell. Despite Blankenship’s personal attacks against him and his family, McConnell didn’t engage in a tit-for-tat. Instead, he sanctioned a well-coordinated, $1.3 million ad campaign against Blankenship. The effort was funded by the Senate Leadership Fund. That’s the same super PAC that poured $5 million into the Alabama Senate race to derail Roy Moore, also under the watchful eye of McConnell.
McConnell also closely coordinated the response to Blankenship’s rapid ascension with the White House. As things heated up, he urged President Trump to step in. So, with an assist from McConnell, this time the president got it right.
The strategy kept West Virginia’s winnable Senate seat in play for the Republicans. Moreover, it foiled Blankenship’s near hijacking of the conservative image.
Republican strategists realize that the emphatic rejection of race-baiting politics in conservative West Virginia has denied Democrats an easy battle cry in the mid-terms. Still, the preface to the end was too close for comfort. How did this happen, and what has the Republican intelligentsia learned?
Fire Still Burns
Hours before the West Virginia vote, it seemed that the Republican leadership might be losing control of its party. Tuesday’s results neither proved or disproved this sentiment.
The takeaway for Republican strategists from these early primaries is that the anti-establishment wildfire still burns. Four sitting Republican members of Congress lost their primaries to outsider types, and Trump’s pugnacious rise will attract other firebrands. The voting tested how far similar candidates can push these anti-establishment boundaries. Party leaders must synergize true conservatism with the rebel appeal. And the string of a Yo-Yo candidate must be cut ¬— not frayed — before it can unfurl.
Whether party leadership can accommodate these lessons before the mid-term elections is an unknown. What is known, is that Conservatives staved off an epic mess in West Virginia. In doing so, they somehow managed to disinfect the kitchen.
Had Blankenship prevailed, the age-old, liberal dog whistle of equating conservatism with racism would have become a fire alarm. But now, Conservatives have demonstrably reclaimed an important threshold for moral integrity and tough choices. Standing for stricter immigration reform, stronger border enforcement and structural changes to entitlement programs do not equate to racism. Simply emulating the president’s brash style, even in a Trump stronghold, has not become a new conservative credential.
We’ve all laughed at our share of West Virginia jokes. But the Blankenship defeat belies the trite light often cast on the good folks of The Mountain State. So next time you’re about to laugh, know this — West Virginia’s Conservatives may have just saved the Republican Party from falling off an Appalachian-sized cliff.