President Donald Trump has managed to change the Republican Party in at least one major way — that is, by "inspiring" many GOP political aspirants to talk and act like himself. And one of those candidates, a man responsible for nearly 30 deaths, may wind up actually becoming the Republican Senate nominee in West Virginia — and, as such, another Roy Moore.
This article was originally published at Salon
Don Blankenship, the disgraced former chairman and CEO of Massey Energy Company, could be the GOP's choice to run against Sen. Joe Manchin in November. In 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia killed 29 men and ultimately resulted in Blankenship receiving a year in prison after his conviction on a misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety standards, according to Politico. Much like Trump, Blankenship has tried to spin his scandal as the result of political persecution, saying that the administration of President Barack Obama was out to get him. He has also claimed that government regulations led to the mine explosion, even though scientists agreed it was caused by a build-up of coal dust that exploded because Massey refused to use crushed limestone (which neutralizes the coal dust) at more than 1,500 locations throughout his mine.
Since his release from prison, Blankenship has gone from being one of the most hated men in West Virginia to being an effective employer of Trump-esque political rhetoric, thereby making him a frontrunner in the Republican Senate primary, although party leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are worried that Blankenship is shaping up to be another politician beloved by the party base but incapable of winning in a general election. Blankenship has also not been shy about using Trumpian oratory to try to realize his political ambitions.
According to a recent story in The New York Times:
From the moment he was released from prison last year, he started using Twitter to bludgeon his political opponents. He calls them liars and liberally employs exclamation points. He teases coming campaign announcements.
One new ad cites statistics on crime committed by undocumented immigrants and notes that the estimated 12 million people in the United States illegally amount to “six times West Virginia’s entire population.”
"Republican Don Blankenship," the announcer assures viewers, "will vote for the wall."
In other words, Blankenship sounds a lot like Roy Moore. Like Moore, Blankenship has a controversial past that could render him unelectable in a general contest, despite the appeal of his red meat right-wing rhetoric to the Republican Party base. With Moore, it was the multiple accusations of sexual misconduct levied against him by women who were underage at the time. With Blankenship, it was his role in the deaths of 29 innocent people due to his own greed.
Blankenship, like Moore, could also snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the Republican-controlled Senate. Moore ran in deep red Alabama for a seat that became available after Sen. Jeff Sessions left to become attorney general under Trump. Blankenship, by contrast, is running for a seat currently held by someone widely regarded as one of the most conservative Democrats in the Senate — and one of the most vulnerable — and West Virginia is a strongly Republican state that went heavily to Trump in 2016.
The attempts to out-Trump the president haven't been limited to Blankenship's campaign. As the Times reports, regarding the race for the Indiana Senate seat:
In Indiana, Representative Todd Rokita, a Republican candidate for Senate, proudly slaps on a red “Make America Great Again” cap in a new ad as he promises to “proudly stand with our president and Mike Pence to drain the swamp.”
Not to be outdone, one of Mr. Rokita’s opponents, Luke Messer, tarred Mr. Rokita as “Lyin’ Todd,” an echo of Mr. Trump’s epithet for Senator Ted Cruz, “Lyin’ Ted.” Mr. Messer’s gripe? Mr. Rokita falsely claimed to have received the president’s endorsement.
Then there is Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who made references in one of her speeches to Trump's pro-gun rhetoric and his diatribes against the National Football League players who have protested during the National Anthem. Blackburn is running in the Tennessee Senate primary to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Bob Corker.
Marsha Blackburn, a congresswoman from Tennessee, wants it known that she will pick the same fights as the president. In an ad announcing her candidacy for the Senate seat of Bob Corker — who also plans to retire — right after she mentions her skeet-shooting skills and the gun she packs in her purse, she promises to stand with Mr. Trump “every step of the way to build that wall.”
"I stand when the president walks in the room. And yes, I stand when I hear ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’" she adds, nodding to the president’s spat with the National Football League after some players knelt in protest during the national anthem.
Another candidate channeling her inner Trump is Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who, like Blackburn, is seeking to replace a retiring Republican incumbent, Sen. Jeff Flake.
Representative Martha McSally, a Republican who is running for the Arizona Senate seat of Republican Jeff Flake, who is retiring, offers a testimonial in one of her campaign videos from Mr. Trump about how "tough" and "real" she is. She tells a story about how she once told Washington politicians to "grow a pair of ovaries." As further proof of her saltiness, Ms. McSally offers up an old, bleeped out quote from a news article. "McSally stood up," the text onscreen reads, "and said let’s get this ‘@#$% thing’ done."
The article also noted that Mississippi State Senator Chris McDaniel, who is running for the Senate in that state, has told audiences, "Someone told me the other day that I was the first Trump, the Trump for Mississippi."
The theme of being sufficiently pro-Trump has even led to jockeying among candidates in swing districts to out-Trump one another. In the race to represent Pennsylvania's newly formed 7th district, both Republican candidates Dean Browning and Marty Nothstein have tried to characterize themselves as pro-Trump and cast doubt on whether their opponent would be the best choice to carry out the president's agenda.
Even Mitt Romney, who made headlines during the 2016 presidential election by actively speak out against Trump, has started sounding like Trump now that he's running in the Utah Republican Senate primary.
"I did find it unusual and somewhat disappointing to have an FBI director go into such personal reactions — as opposed to 'nothing but the facts, ma'am; only the facts,'" Romney told CNN during Utah's Republican convention, following a Republican line that is attempting to discredit the former FBI director for writing a book that was highly critical of Trump.
He added, "I haven't read it, but the excerpts that I've seen, it struck me -- this isn't what I would have expected for a FBI director. I would have expected this from a former Cabinet member, or a member of the White House staff, but somehow felt that the FBI director was more separate from those kinds of comments."
In Romney's case, at least, the tactic didn't work. He failed to receive enough votes at the GOP convention to thwart his chief opponent, State Rep. Mike Kennedy, and will have to run in a primary against him.