There are a lot of people who loathe Don Blankenship, the former head of Massey Energy. Start with the coal miners, 29 of whom were killed in 2010 when an explosion ripped through Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Then there are the employees who have accused him of verbal and physical harassment; neighbors whose drinking water was poisoned by Massey’s improper disposal of hazardous waste; rival businessmen Blankenship squeezed into bankruptcy; and Appalachians whose health has been impaired by the disastrous environmental effects of mountaintop removal, an extractive technique Blankenship helped pioneer.
But five weeks out from West Virginia’s May 8 primary, Blankenship, who has been dubbed “The Dark Lord of Coal Country,” and whose own lawyer argued three years ago that he couldn’t get a fair trial in West Virginia, is within striking range of winning the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. More than that, he’s got momentum. Internal polls released by two of his primary opponents show that Blankenship is within two points of leading what has become a three-way race for the right to challenge Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin.
His comeback is a result of nearly $2 million that Blankenship has dropped on television and online ads in West Virginia’s relatively inexpensive media markets. His rapid rise since joining the U.S. Senate race in December shows the power of spending to rehabilitate the image even of an individual who served a year in prison after he was convicted on a federal charge of systematically violating workplace rules at Upper Big Branch and covering them up.
“It’s like a thorn rubbing against you all the time, just nagging, nagging, nagging at you,” Gary Quarles, a former miner whose son was killed at the mine, said of Blankenship’s ad blitz. “His daughter is on there talking good about her dad, or there’s a few other people on there talking good about Don Blankenship. That man ain’t worth five cents. All he’s done is made money reaped off the coal they’ve raked out of West Virginia, and the hell with everything else.”
“Every time I watch one of his advertisements, my blood boils,” said Stanley “Goose” Stewart, a longtime Massey miner who worked at Upper Big Branch. “His ads are so full of lies, I get sick to my stomach. It’s all so much BS—just propaganda and lies, which is how he ran his coal companies.”
But advertising alone can’t explain Blankenship’s unlikely comeback. He had the trail blazed for him by Donald Trump, whose disruptive presidency has turned much of Blankenship’s baggage into an asset—at least among West Virginia’s Republican voters.
Blankenship was born in Kentucky in 1950, and raised in Mingo County, West Virginia. His mother came from the McCoy family, famous for feuding with the Hatfields after the Civil War, and owned a gas station where she worked seven days a week, often accompanied by her children. Blankenship worked the cash register growing up, and earned a degree in accounting from Marshall University. An ingrained thriftiness marked Blankenship’s tenure at Massey, where his relentless quest to lower costs led him to embrace mountaintop removal mining and push safety and environmental rules to their breaking points.
In 1982 he was recruited by the mining company then known as A.T. Massey. At the time it was trying to weaken the United Mine Workers of America by insisting that the union negotiate separately with a large number of subsidiary companies. Blankenship’s operation, Rawl Sales & Processing Co., quickly became involved in a protracted fight with the union. The often violent dispute stretched for 15 months and affected more than 2,500 miners in Kentucky and West Virginia. Blankenship eventually won, coming away with a souvenir: a television set shot through with a bullet, one of 11 that were fired into his office. He also came away from the dispute with something else: an iron-fisted approach to business.
He became Massey’s president in 1992 and its CEO and chairman of its board two years later. Under his watch, the company grew to become the fourth-largest coal producer in the country, and the largest in Central Appalachia.
The company was repeatedly cited for environmental violations. In Martin County, Kentucky, in 2000, a company dam holding a sludge lake broke and 306 million gallons of coal sludge flooded into an abandoned mine and the Big Sandy River, shutting down water in several towns and killing fish and plants up to 36 miles downstream. The discharge, estimated to be at least 25 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill, was only one of many for which Massey was cited in the 1990s and 2000s.
Kevin Thompson, a Charleston lawyer, sued Massey twice for environmental outrages. In one case, he filed suit against Massey for building coal silos 235 feet from an elementary school, exposing children to coal dust and putting them at risk for asthma and black-lung disease. In the other, Thompson sued Rawl Sales & Processing on behalf of Mingo County residents whose drinking water had been tainted because the company injected 1.4 billion gallons of toxic coal slurry into abandoned underground mines, contaminating nearby rivers and groundwater.
“It caused five people to die and hundreds of kids who drank lead-tainted water to end up having emotional problems, mental problems, and mental disabilities,” Thompson said. “He ruined hundreds of lives to save a dollar. This is a man who doesn’t care about the public. When his wife complained about the water, he had a municipal water line run to his house from the Rawl office in Matewan. My clients didn’t get a drop of that. It all went for him.”
The conditions in Massey’s mines were just as bad, according to those who worked in them.
“When I first started working there, I said on my second day, ‘These people are taking coal mining back to the 1920s’—and that’s the way Don Blankenship wanted it,” said Stewart, who worked at Upper Big Branch from 1995 until the disaster in 2010. “Their safety record was fabricated. I saw more men injured, maimed, and killed in my first three years at Massey than I did in 20 years at Peabody,” which was the largest coal company in the U.S.
In 2006, a fire that started on a conveyer belt in Massey’s Aracoma Alma Mine killed two miners. Four mine foremen later pleaded guilty to federal charges of failing to conduct escapeway drills.
Four years later came Upper Big Branch, where a spark from a longwall shearer ignited a fireball that hit accumulated coal dust, triggering a massive explosion. The 29 deaths represented the worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years. Two government and two independent investigations blamed the disaster on Massey’s skirting of federal mine ventilation and coal dust standards, which contributed to the explosion.
Blankenship’s campaign responded to inquiries for this story by referring me to Greg Thomas, a longtime consultant and adviser. But Thomas did not respond to email or a voicemail left on his phone.
That Blankenship even has a chance in this race speaks to the changing dynamics of American politics. Industry barons have always used money to rehabilitate tarnished reputations, but the success that Trump and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice had in running outsider-business campaigns is Blankenship’s true model. If Justice, a billionaire resort magnate and coal baron who won election as a Democrat before switching parties last summer, is a clownier version of the president, then Blankenship represents a darker reflection, stained with blood capitalism.
“Massey ran on three principles: fear, intimidation, and propaganda,” said Stewart, repeating a line he used in testimony before a federal court and a congressional committee. All three stemmed from Blankenship. During his nearly 30-year stint at Massey, Blankenship broke a violent labor strike, devoured competitors, bought a state court of appeals seat, normalized the use of mountaintop removal mining, and regularly flouted environmental and workplace standards. That all might once have made him persona non grata among national Republicans. But in Trump’s Republican Party, Blankenship’s record is a selling point.
Blankenship is presenting himself as the real deal: a native son who fought Barack Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency, and federal prosecutors. He even has the prison record to prove it.
West Virginia Republicans already owe Blankenship for their party’s newfound strength in the state. He spent much of the last two decades investing in GOP candidates and staff, laying the groundwork for the party’s eventual takeover of West Virginia’s state legislature and three congressional seats.
More importantly, he pioneered “war on coal” messaging to turn support of coal industry barons into a cultural wedge issue that fueled Republican gains in Appalachia. Massey’s 2009 Friends of America Labor Day rally looks today like a preview of Trump’s 2016 campaign. About 75,000 people from across central Appalachia attended the rally, held atop a mountaintop removal site and headlined by Ted Nugent, Hank Williams Jr., Sean Hannity, and others.
Blankenship, clad in an American-flag shirt and cap, criticized the Obama administration with lines that could have easily come from the mouth of the current president: “They’re shutting America down. I call them nuts because they don’t realize that every time that they eliminate American jobs and give them to another country, they increase pollution.”
The Republican Party has changed dramatically in the nine years since that rally, with sheer hatred of Obama and national Democrats pushing it toward Trump’s brand of plutocratic populism. The party’s new look—nativist, anti-establishment, contemptuous of media, and willing to overlook personal and corporate misbehavior in service of trolling liberals—fits Blankenship well.
“It’s clear that Blankenship’s campaign is aimed at linking Joe Manchin, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and MSHA—the Mine Safety and Health Administration—together in a cabal that was out to get Don Blankenship,” said former U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, who represented southern West Virginia on Capitol Hill for 38 years.
But can Blankenship actually win the primary with a list of outrages as long as his?
“There’s no doubt a lot of anger and hatred exists in this state toward the former president,” said Rahall, “but nevertheless, polls showed during Barack Obama’s presidency that the only person lower in popularity in this state was Don Blankenship.”
Still, Thompson, the Charleston lawyer who twice dueled with Blankenship in civil suits, thinks he can prevail. “I think he has a strong shot to win the primary,” Thompson said. “The money is only part of it. I think he’s going to win because he’s got this kind of dark charisma. He’s authentically a fighter and a skilled fighter.”
Blankenship’s two main opponents are Evan Jenkins, a former Democrat who switched parties to successfully run against Rahall in 2014, and Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general and a former pharmaceutical lobbyist who may not appeal to a state hit hard by a mushrooming opioid epidemic. “As far as what Morrisey and Jenkins can do, I don’t know,” Thompson said. “They both have awfully weak personalities. Jenkins is a turncoat; how can you respect him? And Morrisey is from out of state and isn’t a very impressive orator or debater. Blankenship’s going to kill them both in a debate.” They don’t have Blankenship’s name recognition or deep pockets either.
Furthermore, Blankenship only needs to win a plurality of the state’s 390,985 Republicans, who account for less than a third of registered voters in this historically Democratic state. The shape of that electorate is still unclear.
“There’s been so much upheaval,” said Scott Crichlow, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University. “I’m not sure even the national party is entirely clear what it means to be a West Virginia Republican now versus 10 years ago.”
West Virginia voters are angry—at cultural changes driven by the country’s urbanization, at the waning power of the coal industry that drove the state’s economy for the last 150 years, at the lack of opportunity and subsequent decline in population, at the state’s low rankings in metric after metric. They are often driven by issues—guns, abortion, coal, unions, teacher pay, and health care, among others—but also by what they want to see in a candidate. And right now, many West Virginians seem to want a fighter, regardless of party.
And Republicans specifically want someone who’s going to fight national Democrats.
“For the last 10 or 20 years, so much of Republican politics in the state has been based around the idea that Washington, D.C., is our enemy,” Crichlow said. “The party in the state has been building around, ‘We’re the people who will fight Obama, will fight Clinton, will fight the EPA and government to protect the coal industry.’ Blankenship is a fiery known quantity in that sense. Clearly there’s the other side of his record, but I don’t know that the other side is important to Republican primary voters.”
If he wins the May primary, Blankenship will be rewarded with a high-profile general election showdown against one of his biggest enemies: Joe Manchin, the former governor of the state. Manchin remains one of West Virginia’s more popular elected officials, even though 69 percent of its voters went for Trump. A MetroNews West Virginia poll last August showed Manchin with a 51 percent approval rating, 3 points better than Trump’s rating in the same poll. A Morning Consult poll released in January showed his rating relatively unchanged.
Prognosticators, however, see a vulnerable senator: The Cook Political Report
rates Manchin’s seat as a Toss-up, while Sabato’s Crystal Ball lists it as Leans Democratic. Those calculations could quickly change if Blankenship wins the primary, thanks both to his historic unpopularity and the fact that he is not liked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who told The New York Times in February he did not want to see him win the nomination in West Virginia. Blankenship had contributed money to McConnell in the past, but recently told Politico Magazine, “I was against McConnell long before he was against me.”
Yet it would be a colossal mistake to underestimate Blankenship, said Thompson. He’s a numbers guy, after all.
“I would imagine he’s got polling that tells him he’s got a shot in Trump’s West Virginia,” said Thompson, “and I would imagine he’s got polling that tells him that Manchin is vulnerable, because from what I know about Don Blankenship, he’s not in it to win the Republican primary. Somehow, he’s looked at the numbers and has convinced himself he’s going to win the race. He’s not doing this to get his good name back or win the Republican primary. He’s doing this to win a seat in the U.S. Senate.”
Still, Blankenship knows that the Upper Big Branch disaster is a huge liability. It has a prominent presence in his campaign ads, where he is peddling a new narrative. Blankenship claims MSHA is at fault for implementing a faulty ventilation scheme and prohibiting coal dust scrubbers, with Manchin, who was governor at the time, and Obama also culpable.
“Really, the race is becoming about Don Blankenship,” Crichlow said. “The other two candidates don’t make the same kind of impression, which is not the position you want to be in when the person who gets the most votes in a plurality is the one who wins.”
I asked Rahall whether he thought Blankenship might be able to win. He paused before responding.
“My gut tells me no,” Rahall said. “My sense of decency and morality tells me that West Virginians won’t fall for it, but then again I didn’t think they’d fall for Donald Trump’s shenanigans either.”
In the meantime, the many individuals whose lives have been damaged by Massey will continue to see Blankenship’s image on a regular basis. Retired miner Stewart said that guilt over Upper Big Branch “is eating his guts out,” given how much time Blankenship has devoted to it in ads.
“If people vote for him, they may as well get ready,” Stewart said. “He never did the right things when he was running coal mines. He operated the mine like he was a dictator of a third-world country, only his country was Massey. It would be no different in politics.”
Gary Quarles, the miner who lost his son in Upper Big Branch eight years ago, said, “I’m telling you right now, that man is no good. None whatsoever. He’s the lowest life of scum ever been, and I’m not lying to you. He ain’t worth a pint of piss. And he’s never going to stop.”