Trump urges West Virginia voters to reject Blankenship

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A defiant Don Blankenship fired back Monday after President Donald Trump urged West Virginia voters to support two of the convicted ex-coal executive's opponents in the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

Cutout Photo: Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0

Blankenship said in a statement issued by his campaign that "I will win the primary and I will beat Joe Manchin. Neither of my opponents can beat Joe Manchin without my support, but I will beat Joe Manchin even without the support of the establishment."

Trump felt otherwise when he said in a tweet that Blankenship would lose the general election to Manchin, the Democratic incumbent senator.

Blankenship is among six GOP candidates in Tuesday's primary. Others include two-term U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

"To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference," Trump said on Twitter. "Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can't win the General Election in your State...No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!"

Trump cited Alabama Republican Roy Moore, who lost a special Senate election after allegations of past sexual misconduct. Trump had endorsed Moore in that race.

The 68-year-old Blankenship, the former CEO at Massey Energy, served a one-year prison term on a misdemeanor conviction for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards at Massey's Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners were killed in a 2010 explosion. Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of his release from a California prison. He filed Senate candidacy papers late last year.

Blankenship has taken aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with racially charged accusations of corruption. He responded that Trump doesn't know him and "the establishment is misinforming him because they do not want me to be in the US Senate and promote the president's agenda."

He added: "As some have said, I am Trumpier than Trump and this morning proves it."

Blankenship also touted his millions of dollars in contributions to past Republican campaigns in the state, including spending $3.4 million to help elect the first Republican to the state Supreme Court in 2004.

"West Virginia voters should remember that my enemies are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and my opponents would not even be running as Republicans had I not resurrected the Republican Party in West Virginia," Blankenship said.

West Virginia gave Donald Trump his largest margin of victory in the nation in 2016. Republicans make up just 32 percent of registered voters in West Virginia, yet in 2014 the state flipped the majority in the Legislature to the GOP for the first time in more than eight decades. Republicans hold five of the six statewide offices, including governor.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Monday on Fox and Friends the president's tweet against Blankenship is meant to avoid internal battles among Republicans and "find the very best person" in West Virginia to challenge Manchin.

"What the president is saying is let's help this country," McCarthy said. "Let's put America first, find the very best person in West Virginia and not have a situation where we can't even compete in November."

In a statement from his campaign, Morrisey said, "I hope West Virginia voters will listen to President Trump when they go to the polls tomorrow. We have a real chance to unite behind a proven conservative fighter and defeat Sen. Manchin in the fall. If we do that, West Virginia will have a senator who will work closely with President Trump. Don Blankenship is Chuck Schumer's favorite candidate because everyone knows he will lose to Joe Manchin in the fall."

Jenkins' campaign also released a statement. He said, "I'm honored that President Trump encouraged voters to cast their vote for me to Make America Great Again. I'm the only candidate in this race who has backed Donald Trump since day one, and as senator, I'll continue working side-by-side with him in the best interests of West Virginia and our conservative values."

On Sunday, Morrisey said Blankenship's failure to file a personal financial disclosure form violates the Ethics in Government Act. Morrisey said he plans to forward information to Blankenship's probation officer to determine whether it's a violation of Blankenship's supervised release.

Blankenship campaign spokesman Greg Thomas said the candidate is "in the process" of filing the paperwork and has sent notification it would be late. Thomas said Blankenship's form is complicated.
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Lucey reported from Washington, D.C.