Watch CBSN Live

What to know about Tuesday's West Virginia GOP primary

Can Blankenship go onto the general?

So what's going on in West Virginia's Republican primary?

In broad strokes, the GOP has two candidates it thinks can beat incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November: Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Manchin was elected as a socially conservative Democrat to replace the legendary Sen. Robert Byrd in 2010 and won a full term in 2012. He's known as a skilled politician, but West Virginia is much more Republican than it was just a few years ago, and President Trump is quite popular in the state.

That makes Manchin one of the most vulnerable, if not the most vulnerable, Democratic senator up for reelection this year. With Republicans possessing a one-seat majority in the chamber and facing the possibility of losing seats in the southwest, Republicans are counting on defeating Manchin to retain their control of the Senate.

However, Republicans have a major problem on their hands in West Virginia. His name is Don Blankenship, a coal baron who served a year in prison after being found culpable for a mine explosion that killed 29 people in 2010. He frequently makes racially charged statements, and he likes to refer to GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as "Cocaine Mitch" for reasons that are, at best, convoluted.

And he also has a good shot at becoming the Republican senate nominee from West Virginia.

Would that be good news for Democrats?

Yes. Mr. Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr., have both tweeted that West Virginians should vote for someone other than Blankenship, warning that nominating him would lead to a scenario like the one that played out in Alabama in December. In that race, the GOP nominated a deeply flawed candidate in Roy Moore, who went on to lose a U.S. Senate race in an upset to Democrat Doug Jones. But Blankenship, like Jenkins and Morrisey, is still running as an avowedly pro-Trump candidate.

An outside group allied with McConnell has also sunk more than $1 million into the race in an effort to head off Blankenship. But Democrats have invested a similar amount to tear down Jenkins in an obvious effort to boost Blankenship, whom they see as the most beatable Republican in the race.

Why do they think he's the most beatable Republican?

Where to begin. Well, let's start with the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010, where an explosion killed 29 miners. Massey Energy, a company run by Blanksenship, oversaw the mine, and a series of investigations found that Blankenship and Massey were responsible for the catastrophe. In 2016, Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to violate mine safety regulations. He served a year in jail, and his opponents have tried to make his role in the explosion a defining issue in the race. They've also latched on to his residency in Nevada, although Blankenship has defended himself by claiming miners often have two homes. 

Conservative Fighter vs. Convicted Criminal by Patrick Morrisey on YouTube

For his part, Blankenship says he is not responsible for the explosion, and that he would have needed to be "clairvoyant" to stop it from happening. He told CBS News that he is "determined to honor the family members with laws that would prevent this from happening again." He also says he was the victim of a "fake prosecution" and that "laymen would not have the insight or the inside information."

Although there's been little by way of reliable polling on the race, there's some indication that West Virginia Republicans might be willing to believe him. According to a Weekly Standard story on Monday, two internal polls taken by Blankenship's rivals over the weekend indicate that he has a narrow lead over both Morrisey and Jenkins.

Then there's the issue with his ads.

What's the problem with his ads?

They're increasingly surreal, for one thing, with a stone-faced Blankenship castigating his opponents in a monotone voice.

"Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people," he says in his bizarre final ad of the race.

"While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars. Mitch's swamp people are now running false negative ads against me. They're also childishly calling me despicable and mentally ill. The war to drain the swamp and create jobs for West Virginia people has begun. I will beat Joe Manchin and ditch Cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids."

What is he talking about?

It's not really all that unusual for Republican insurgents to bash McConnell, who is unpopular with the GOP base. But Blankenship has repeatedly given his attacks on McConnell a racial sheen, noting that the Senate majority leader's wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan. And according to a 2014 report in The Nation, a progressive magazine, a shipping boat owned by Chao's family's company was once found with cocaine on it. Hence "Cocaine Mitch."

For what it's worth, Blankenship's fiancé is from China and he's mused about trying to get Chinese citizenship because he prefers that country's regulatory structure. Blankenship also says that his attacks on McConnell and Chao aren't racist, despite his references to McConnell's father-in-law being a "China person."

"They've always said about me, 'West Virginia people.' Is 'West Virginia people' racist?" Blankenship recently told Roll Call at a campaign appearance. He added: "We're confused on our staff as to how it can be racist when there's no mention of a race. There's no race. Races are negro, white caucasian, Hispanic, Asian. There's no mention of a race. I've never used a race word."

If Blankenship wins the nomination, is there any chance he can beat Manchin?

It's impossible to say this far out. Manchin has some significant baggage stemming from his ties to a company, run by his daughter, which got in trouble for drastically increasing the price of EpiPens. And the state has only grown more Republican since his last election in 2012.

On the other hand, its unclear if the GOP would even really want Blankenship in the Senate, given his racial comments and his attacks on McConnell. So the national party, including Mr. Trump, might not want to do much to help him in a race with Manchin. In fact, given how he's now repeatedly found himself backing losing candidates -- such as Luther Strange in Alabama -- he might start sitting out contentious GOP primaries for awhile if Blankenship comes out on top on Tuesday. 

Then there's the issue of McConnell, who once again finds himself being trashed in a GOP Senate primary battle. McConnell's allies have plenty of money at their disposal, but if Blankenship wins on Tuesday, it may start looking like he can't keep his troops in line. 

McConnell's people burned a lot of money in Alabama trying and failing to keep Roy Moore from winning the nomination. If their efforts come up short again in West Virginia, it will be a boon to fringe candidates in must-win states like Arizona and Mississippi -- especially if Mr. Trump concludes that backing establishment candidates continues to be a losing bet. 

View CBS News In