KEYSER, W.Va. — Don Blankenship is running for the United States Senate as a proud West Virginian with Appalachian roots, but his primary residence is a $2.4 million villa with palm trees and an infinity pool near Las Vegas.
Mr. Blankenship, a Republican loyalist of President Trump, is running an America First-style campaign and calls himself an “American competitionist,” but he admires China’s state-controlled economy and has expressed interest in gaining Chinese citizenship.
The former coal mining executive is widely known for spending a year in prison for his role in a mining explosion that claimed 29 lives. Yet ahead of the May 8 primary election, he is running as a champion of miners and has bought TV ads that challenge settled facts about his role in the disaster.
And even as Mr. Blankenship seeks to join the Republican majority in Washington, a “super PAC” linked to the party establishment is attacking him as a “convicted criminal” and a hypocrite.
No Republican candidate in the 2018 midterms embodies so many contradictions as pointedly as Mr. Blankenship, who was found guilty of conspiracy to violate mine safety standards in federal court and yet has plenty of supporters in coal country.
He is one of three leading Republican contenders heading into the primary, even though he is lugging around enough political baggage to disqualify a candidate most anywhere else.
That Mr. Blankenship retains a political hope is a consequence of West Virginia’s sharp shift to the right, driven by seething hostility to the Obama presidency, both its social changes and its perceived “war” on coal. The emergence of a former coal boss with a criminal record as a potential Senate nominee seems partly an expression of many West Virginia voters’ desire to poke a thumb in the eye of the Washington establishment, Republicans very much included.
Mr. Blankenship offers no apology for his many contradictions and personal and business decisions, some of them previously undisclosed. Though he lives a baronial lifestyle thanks to a fortune built on coal scratched from West Virginia’s mountains, he says the size and origins of his wealth are no one’s business. He is the only candidate in either party in the Senate race who has not disclosed his personal finances as required by law to the Senate Select Committee on Ethics. There isn’t “much of a penalty” for flouting the law, he explained in an interview, justifying his refusal.
“I don’t personally think anybody should have to disclose private information,” he said while awaiting the start of a “meet the candidates” event last week in Cabin Creek, W.Va.
National Republican leaders are alarmed that Mr. Blankenship could emerge as the winner of the primary, which they fear would cost them a winnable seat in November against Senator Joe Manchin, a vulnerable Democrat.
In a highly unusual move, a super PAC linked to Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky senator and Republican leader, began saturating the West Virginia airwaves last week with an ad attacking Mr. Blankenship for poisoning local drinking water from his former coal mines. The nearly $745,000 campaign of TV and digital ads is meant to boost the chances of two conventional Republicans in the race, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Representative Evan Jenkins. A Fox News poll conducted last week found a fluid race, with Mr. Blankenship trailing his rivals but about one in four voters undecided.
On Monday, responding to the attack ads, Mr. Blankenship brought up Mr. McConnell’s marriage to Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation, and questioned whether the majority leader faced a conflict of interest in foreign relations. Ms. Chao’s father is “a wealthy Chinaperson,” Mr. Blankenship said, speaking on a West Virginia radio show, adding, “And there’s a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China.”
“I read in books that people think he’s soft on China,” he said of Mr. McConnell.
China, as it happens, is a topic of personal interest to Mr. Blankenship. His fiancée, Farrah Meiling Hobbs, was born there. The two met on a flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas about eight years ago, Mr. Blankenship said. According to the website of an international trading company Ms. Hobbs founded, she is “a former Chinese professional basketball player and part-time model” who moved to the United States in 1996.
In 2016 Ms. Hobbs and Mr. Blankenship paid $2.4 million in cash to buy the palatial home near Las Vegas that Mr. Blankenship claims in court papers is his principal residence. It is a six-bedroom, eight-bath Spanish-style mansion with marble floors and a dolphin sculpture beside the pool, according to an online real estate site. (He also owns a residence in West Virginia.)
It was purchased just before Mr. Blankenship began a one-year prison sentence following his conviction on a misdemeanor count related to the 2010 explosion at Upper Big Branch mine, the deadliest mine accident in the United States in 40 years.
Though Mr. Blankenship stepped down that year as chief executive of the Massey Energy Company, he exited with his sumptuous earnings intact. Massey paid him $17.8 million in his last year. He gained an additional $86.2 million when the company was later sold, by one estimate.
Part of Mr. Blankenship’s assets are now paying for some $2 million of TV and digital ads — far more than his rivals — that seek to muddy the picture of his 2015 conviction by painting him as a victim of a politically driven “Obama judge” and “Obama prosecutors.”
Family members of the 29 Upper Big Branch victims said it was crushing to watch those ads, in which Mr. Blankenship portrays himself as a champion of safety and refuses responsibility for the loss of life.
“I want Mr. Blankenship to say he’s sorry, I want him to feel contrition, I want him to feel compassion,” said Dr. Judy Jones Petersen, whose brother Dean Jones died in the explosion. “People have to understand that Mr. Blankenship is a bad man. Your character doesn’t change.”
In his campaign, Mr. Blankenship positions himself as a West Virginia populist, an “American competitionist” who stands for unfettered capitalism. The heart of the government’s case against him at trial was that he rapaciously sought profit while ignoring mine safety.
Yet he identifies the new frontier of uninhibited capitalism as China. In a telephone conversation he recorded in 2009, introduced at his trial, Mr. Blankenship said he might move to Asia where governments enforce fewer regulations.
“I’m actually considering moving to China or somewhere and being more like George Washington if I can get citizenship,” he said. “I can probably get citizenship in India. I’d rather be in China.”
In the interview, he repeated this sentiment and freely discussed his financial history in China, though he said foreign citizenship was no longer a priority for him — perhaps dual citizenship would be useful, he mused.
He expressed admiration for how Beijing exercises central control over its economy.
“Americans confuse the words communism and dictatorship,” he said. “The Chinese are running a dictatorial capitalism and it’s very effective. That’s the way corporations are run. Corporations are not a democracy.”
Before his foreign travel was restricted after his arrest in 2014, Mr. Blankenship was a frequent enough visitor to China that he opened a bank account there. “When I go over there I don’t have to carry a lot of money with me,” he said in the interview. “If you go over there and you spend some time, you can easily spend a good bit of money.”
Ms. Hobbs and Mr. Blankenship formed a business together in 2012, Generator World, to import home generators made in China. According to records from Panjiva, which tracks global trade, a shipment of 386 items was sent from Fuzhou, China, the next year to Ms. Hobbs’s company, Amerasia International.
“They arrived and we did sell them, but we didn’t grow the business or continue it,” Mr. Blankenship said. “I wasn’t in a position to do that.” It was a dry reference to his trial, sentence and one-year parole, which will end the day after the May 8 primary.
In the absence of much public polling, the clearest sign that Mr. Blankenship is a threat in the race is the hefty advertising budget of national Republicans who seek to disqualify him with voters.
Otherwise, signs of his support can be elusive. He draws sparse crowds to his events, and when he appears at multicandidate gatherings, he shows little knack for political skills. Rather than working a room, he keeps to himself, as he did at the Mineral County Lincoln Day dinner on Friday in Keyser.
“I don’t think someone who’s on parole at this moment in time should be running for office,” Jessica Imes, a voter at the dinner, said.
Mr. Morrisey, the attorney general, moved easily among the party activists dining on stuffed chicken breast and mashed potatoes beneath a giant stuffed moose head at the local Order of Moose hall. His campaign has spent little time attacking Mr. Blankenship, in the belief that primary voters recognize that Republicans should not run a convicted criminal in the general election.
“I think he would get crushed in the fall, crushed,” Mr. Morrisey said.
“The hypocrisy runs deep in this race,” he added. “He’s a Nevada resident. He abandoned West Virginia when we really needed people to stand up to Barack Obama.”
Although Mr. Blankenship maintained in numerous court proceedings that his principal residence was Nevada, he still owns a home in West Virginia, in Mingo County not far from where he was raised. He said he paid property taxes in West Virginia but not income taxes.
There is nothing legally barring him from seeking a Senate seat from the state if he declares a primary residence elsewhere.
He scoffed at the notion that voters might regard him as an outsider, even a carpetbagger, because he lives mostly in Nevada.
“Many people have two homes,” he said. “Most coal miners now have one in Tennessee and one in West Virginia.”
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