Will Don Blankenship Do in West Virginia What Roy Moore Did in Alabama?

Republicans have a good chance at taking back a key Senate seat from Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin this year, but they worry a convicted coal baron may stand in their way.

President Donald Trump and Republican leaders are concerned about the West Virginia Senate GOP primary, as new internal polls show ex-con coal boss Don Blankenship, who spent a year in prison for mine safety violations that contributed to an explosion that killed 29 people, is leading the race against party-line Republicans Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Representative Evan Jenkins.

"We have a three-alarm fire in West Virginia," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell told Newsweek. O'Connell, who worked on John McCain's presidential campaign, said he believes that if Blankenship loses the primary this Tuesday, the race is the Republicans' to win.

The situation strikes a similar chord to Roy Moore's successful Alabama senatorial primary campaign against incumbent Luther Strange and ultimate defeat to Democratic candidate Doug Jones last December. Like Moore, Blankenship has run a bizarre campaign focused on appealing to those who are tired of politics-as-usual by creating a chasm between himself and establishment Republicans.

Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who helped lead Jones to victory in Alabama, agreed. "Regardless of who wins the nomination tomorrow, there's going to be an angry split in the Republican Party," he said. This was going to be a tough race for the Republican candidate to begin with, Trippi added, but this primary fight means there's another unnecessary hurdle for the eventual candidate to overcome.

Blankenship has made no bones about attacking other Republicans. In one campaign commercial, Blankenship referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as "Cocaine Mitch" and said the GOP leader, who is married to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, has created "millions of jobs for China people" and has gotten rich from his "China family."

Blankenship has repeatedly explained away his time behind bars by saying that the mine explosion was a conspiracy orchestrated by the Obama administration while peppering in comparisons of himself and former South African President Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years as a political prisoner.

Much to the chagrin of McConnell and Trump, Blankenship's extreme behavior has appealed to far-right primary voters but will likely serve as a disadvantage when the time comes to move toward the middle in the general election. In a Tweet Monday morning, Trump attempted to appeal to the sensibilities of West Virginia Republicans, who voted Trump into office in 2016 by nearly 42 points.

"To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference," he wrote. "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!"

To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference. 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!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 7, 2018

That hasn't stopped Blankenship from using Trump to help his case. He declared himself "Trumpier than Trump," after seeing the tweet, confirming that Trumpism has moved into something larger than just the president.

Democrats, meanwhile, are borrowing from Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill's playbook and pushing for a Blankenship nomination. A Democratic super PAC called Duty and Country has spent more than $1 million on Blankenship's behalf. In 2012, faced with a nearly impossible re-election in a red state, McCaskill operated a secret campaign on behalf of Tea Party candidate Todd Akin in the primary, knowing he would be easier to beat than establishment candidate John Brunner.

"Democrats learned this deal with Todd Akin in 2012, and they're trying to repeat it. If Blankenship wins the Republican nomination, it will take an easy pickup win from the GOP. The race will be over and Democrats will be able to narrow the gap in Senate," said O'Connell, the Republican strategist.

Both O'Connell and Trippi said this primary split has been a detriment to Republican Senate elections and Democratic House elections, where far-left candidates have been widening the field. "In the Senate, it's amazing how much more the Democrats are able to put aside their differences," said O'Connell. "But in the House, Republicans have been able to coordinate primaries very well."

These primary splits are pushing both parties to extremes and are ultimately responsible for the wave of Trumpism the American political system is seeing, said Trippi. "This thing has been going on within the Republican Party for some time and it resulted in Trump," he said. "Trump didn't start this. It's been happening since at least 2010, and they tend to keep repeating the problem."