As CEO of Massey Energy, central Appalachia's largest coal producer, Don Blankenship towered over West Virginia politics for more than a decade by spending millions to bolster Republican candidates and causes. That chapter came to an end in April, when Blankenship was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to commit mine safety violations in the period leading up to the deadly 2010 explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine. But even in absentia, he casts a long shadow over state politics. For evidence, look no further than the contentious Democratic primary for governor.
The campaign pits Jim Justice, a billionaire coal operator and high school basketball coach, against two opponents—state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, and Booth Goodwin, the former US attorney who prosecuted Blankenship. Justice holds a double-digit lead in the polls and (not unlike another billionaire running for office this year) is spending much of his time arguing that his 10-figure net worth will insulate him from special interests. But when he was asked about the Blankenship conviction at a campaign stop earlier this month, he ripped into Goodwin for what he considered to be a sloppy, opportunistic prosecution.
"I think we spent an ungodly amount of money within our state to probably keep Booth Goodwin in the limelight and end up with a misdemeanor charge," Justice told WOAY TV. "If that's all we are going to end up with, why did we spend that much money to do that?"
Blankenship originally faced up to 30 years for making false statements to federal regulators, but he was convicted on only the least serious of three counts—the misdemeanor conspiracy charge. In Goodwin's view (and in the minds of plenty of Blankenship's critics), his light sentence is the product of weak mine safety laws, not lax prosecution. As he told the Charleston Gazette-Mail, "It is not our fault that violating laws designed to protect workers is punished less harshly than violations of laws designed to protect Wall Street." (Nor was the Blankenship case a one-time gimmick—prior to that trial, Goodwin also secured the convictions of a handful of Blankenship's subordinates at Massey.)
Goodwin fired back at Justice in a fundraising email to supporters. He referred to Blankenship as Justice's "good friend," alleging that Justice "took him as his personal guest to the 2012 Kentucky Derby two years after the horrific Upper Big Branch mine explosion," and that he attended a gala that night with Blankenship, hosted by then-Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, "while the families of the UBB miners who were killed were still suffering their loss." (A Beshear spokesman told the Louisville Courier-Journal at the time that Blankenship attended Derby Day events as Justice's guest, which Justice's campaign denies.) For good measure, he noted that Justice, like Blankenship, had racked up a huge tab of mine safety violation fines, some $2 million of which had gone unpaid and were considered "delinquent" prior to the start of the campaign. (Justice began paying off the fines after an NPR investigation made the total bill public.)
On Monday, Goodwin's campaign went after Justice again, releasing an ad based on the front-runner's remarks about the Blankenship prosecution. In the spot, Judy Jones Petersen, the sister of a miner who died at UBB, speaks straight to the camera and suggests that the two coal operators have more in common than Justice would like to admit.
"I don't really understand why Mr. Justice would step out against the integrity of this incredible prosecution team," Petersen says. "He of all people as a coal mining operator should understand the plight of coal miners, but I think that unfortunately the plight that he understands best is the plight of Don Blankenship."
She goes on to call Goodwin a "hero" for prosecuting Blankenship.
Justice, for his part, is running his own ad—touting an endorsement from the United Mine Workers praising him for his record on safety and job creation. The union's president, Cecil Roberts, previously called the UBB disaster "industrial homicide," and fought Blankenship over mine safety and workers' rights for three decades. His message is a not-too-subtle contrast with Blankenship and Massey: "Jim is one of the good coal operators."
Don't expect Blankenship's shadow to shrink as the race heats up. The Democratic primary is set for May 10—two days before the notorious coal boss reports to federal prison.
Ted Cruz may be mathematically eliminated from clinching the Republican presidential nomination before the convention, but that didn't stop the Texas senator from announcing a running mate on Wednesday: Carly Fiorina, the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard. Fiorina, who dropped out of the Republican presidential race after the New Hampshire primary and previously lost a US Senate race in California, is a notable pick not just because she is a woman, or because she previously criticized Cruz for saying "whatever he needs to say to get elected," but because of her past experience—she would be the first vice president in 76 years to have ascended to the post without previously holding elected office.
The last time a major party picked a vice presidential nominee without legislative or gubernatorial experience was in 1972, when Democrat George McGovern chose Sargent Shriver, who had previously run the Peace Corps and worked on President Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty." But you have to put an asterisk next to that, since Shriver was chosen only after McGovern's original running mate, Sen. Thomas Eagleton, resigned amid reports about his previous mental health treatments. Four years earlier, Alabama Gov. George Wallace selected as his running mate Air Force General Curtis LeMay, but Wallace, a longtime Democrat, had chosen to run (and lose) under the American Independent Party.
To find a running mate with no experience in elected office who actually won, you have to go back to 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt named Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace as his second vice president, following eight years of John Nance Garner. Prior to that, Calvin Coolidge tapped Charles Dawes, President Warren Harding's budget director, to be on his victorious ticket in 1924. Dawes had lost a Senate race 23 years earlier and written a hit song in the interim, before being dragged into the executive branch. Dawes himself seemed to recognize his lack of qualifications."I don't know anything about politics," he said after being selected as Coolidge's running mate. "I thought I knew something about politics once. I was taken up on the top of a 20-story building and showed the promised land—and then I was kicked off."
But okay, both of those vice presidents had some experience in the executive branch. The last true outsider to win was in the 19th century. Prior to becoming James A. Garfield's running mate in 1880, Chester A. Arthur had no political experience other than stints as port collector of New York City and chairman of the state Republican Party. In a nice bit of symmetry with Cruz's campaign, Arthur's future presidential campaign was marred by allegations that he was ineligible because he was born in Canada.
State Sen. Jamie Raskin won Tuesday's Democratic primary in Maryland's eighth congressional district. But the bigger story is who lost—that would be David Trone, a wine retailer who spent $12.7 million of his own money in the hopes of winning the seat.
Trone, running in a district that includes the affluent Washington, DC, suburbs in Montgomery County, set a record for most money spent by a self-funding congressional candidate to win a House seat. (The previous record was $7.8 million, and that included both a primary and a general election; as of early April, Raskin's campaign had spent a little more than $1 million.)
The irony is that Trone was running as a campaign finance crusader. Much like Donald Trump, who cites his $35 million investment in his campaign as proof he can't be bought, Trone believed his enormous personal wealth would insulate him from charges of corruption. "I certainly could have raised enough money to fund a competitive campaign," he said in a full-page Washington Post ad two weeks ago, when he had only spent a pedestrian $9.1 million. "But the PACs, lobbyists and big dollar donors who give money would expect special attention. No matter how well-intentioned, those contributions and the candidates who take them are part of the reason Washington is broken."
That message carried him to the brink of success—or maybe it was just the deluge ads—but in the end, money alone didn't cut it. Trone won by large margins in the two counties that comprise a smaller portion of the district, but Raskin held a sizable edge in his home county, Montgomery. Trone's final receipt: a little more than $400 per vote.
On Sunday night, it finally happened. Just before 11 p.m., the campaigns of Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz released matching statements promising to work together to stop Donald Trump from clinching the Republican nomination before the convention. The agreement they struck was that Kasich would stop campaigning in his neighboring state of Indiana, to give Cruz a chance to catch Trump there, and Cruz would stop campaigning in his neighboring state of New Mexico, as well as Oregon, in the hopes of boosting Kasich there. Anti-Trump voices had been calling for candidates to work together for months (Cruz trampled over Marco Rubio's frantic appeal for help in Florida); the alliance was a sign that reality had set in.
But one thing missing from the agreement was any indication that Kasich and Cruz would actually tell their voters in Indiana, New Mexico, or Oregon, to support the other guy. And sure enough, while eating at a diner in Philadelphia on Monday morning, Kasich decided to pour water on the whole plan. Would the governor, a reporter asked, tell his supporters in Indiana to vote for Cruz? No, Kasich said. "I've never told them not to vote for me; they ought to vote for me." He explained that the deal had nothing to do with strategic voting—it was only about whether to campaign or not campaign. Sounds like a strong alliance!
Mike Pape is a Republican running for Congress in Kentucky's first district. On Wednesday, he released the worst ad of the 2016 campaign. For similar reasons, it might also be the best ad of the 2016 campaign.
Pape's prospective district gave a combined 75 percent of the voteto Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, and Pape seems to have taken that message to heart. The ad features three men and one very bad mustache cutting through the US border fence in order to get to America, so they can stop Trump, Cruz, and Pape from building the wall and repealing Obamacare. Because you can't cut down a wall with a wire-cutter, my friend.
Let's break it down:
This is not what the border looks like. Speaking of borders! Kentucky's first district includes the famous Kentucky Bend, which was separated from the rest of the state by a surveying error and is accessible only by driving through Tennessee. This is what happens when you neglect your borders, folks.
The guy on the right has a flashlight. Smart. But why does the guy in the middle have a lantern? Did they rob a stagecoach?
These guys have been talking about Republican politics for hours, maybe days, and no one thought to ask the guy on the left why his shirt said "Stop Pape" until now.
You never know when you'll need duct tape. For instance, if the adhesive on your mustache starts to wear off.
Let's not overstate the quality of the acting in this production, but this moment represents a rare bright moment. We see a look of genuine surprise when this man is told that Pape will help Cruz repeal Obamacare. (We've previously been told he'll help Trump build the wall, which is confusing; are Cruz and Trump going to share the presidency?) Perhaps, in the hopes of eliciting a more authentic expression during filming, the director told the actor beforehandthat Pape was for single-payer. This calls to mind the story about why Alan Rickman looked so surprised at the end of Die Hard.
The ad has subtitles throughout, but "vámonos" is the only Spanish word that is ever translated to English.
So at the end of the ad, the camera pulls back to reveal that Mike Pape, candidate for Congress, has been right there all along, and continues to talk to the camera even as the ostensible Mexicans sneak into the country. It's tough to figure out who is worse at their jobs here. The tough-talking Pape turns his back on the border fence and lets people cut a hole in it. But the three migrants have explicitly come to the United States to stop Pape, only to walk right past him. You're all fired.