By JOHN RABY and JONATHAN MATTISE
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — An ex-coal executive who’s running for U.S. Senate after serving a one-year prison sentence has escalated his barrage on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, taking swipes at “China people’’ and calling McConnell “Cocaine Mitch’’ in a new ad.
Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, a Republican, is seeking the West Virginia seat now held by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. But his ad disparages McConnell, the Republican leader from Kentucky.
Blankenship has already called McConnell “Cocaine Mitch’’ in a previous ad, and has said in a radio interview that McConnell’s father-in-law is “a wealthy China person and there’s a lot of connections to some of the brass, if you will, in China.’’
Blankenship’s new ad says McConnell has created jobs for “China people’’ and charges that his “China family’’ has given him millions of dollars. McConnell’s wife is U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan.
Blankenship says the ad is in response to false, negative ads that McConnell’s “swamp people’’ are running against him.
Donald Trump Jr. has since echoed a McConnell-linked super PAC in publicly calling for Blankenship’s defeat, saying if he’s victorious, the party can’t win West Virginia in November.
“If he were to be the nominee, we would instantly squander a viable opportunity, and lose a seat — just like Roy Moore did — we might have been able to win,’’ said Steven Law, president of the McConnell-linked super PAC Senate Leadership Fund. Law was referring to Alabama Republican Roy Moore, a former state Supreme Court judge, who lost a special Senate election last year.
The Blankenship ad also has the potential of turning away potential swing voters to the Republican Party more broadly, Law said.
“I do think there is a segment of the press corps that loves to cover Republicans who spew racist claptrap because it portrays our party in a negative light and turns off educated voters, upper income voters,’’ Law said. “It’s a problem when someone carries on like that.’’
On May 4, Elaine Chao did not respond to a question about Blankenship’s ads as she left an event at an elementary school in Frankfort, Kentucky.
Blankenship filed for the Senate seat after serving prison time for a misdemeanor conviction of violating federal mine safety standards at Upper Big Branch Mine in southern West Virginia, where an explosion in 2010 killed 29 men. He has vehemently denied responsibility for the deadly blast.
As of mid-April, Blankenship has put $3.5 million of his own money into the campaign, has only received $2,000 in campaign checks and has spent $2.8 million, according to federal campaign finance disclosures.
Blankenship was asked about the “China person’’ comment during a debate last week in Morgantown.
“This idea that I called somebody a China person, I mean I’m an American person,’’ Blankenship said. “I don’t see this insinuation by the press that there’s something racist about saying a China person. Some people are Korean persons and some of them are African persons. It’s not any slander there.’’
Blankenship is at odds with McConnell, who he says is “spending millions to defeat me.’’
In response, the Senate Leadership Fund has pointed to statements in 2009 in which Blankenship mulled a move to China.
“I’m actually considering moving to China or somewhere and being more like George Washington, you know,’’ Blankenship said in the 2009 recorded phone call, which was used as evidence in his criminal trial. “If I can get citizenship, I can probably get citizenship in India. I’d rather be in China, but the hard work and the effort and the creativity that we put into running businesses in the U.S. would be much more valuable in other places.’’
A spokesman for the Senate GOP’s most powerful super PAC has declined to confirm or deny a connection to Mountain Families PAC, an organization that has invested more than $700,000 attacking Blankenship on television.
Blankenship’s reference to “Cocaine Mitch’’ stems from a 2014 magazine article alleging drugs were found aboard a commercial cargo ship owned by Chao’s family.
Chao was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the United States as a child with her family. Her father later founded a successful shipping company in New York. Chao worked in the administrations of presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In 1993, she married McConnell and has since served as cabinet secretaries for presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
Blankenship said in a statement that the establishment is doing everything it can to keep Manchin in office.
“I am not just ready to help President Trump drain the swamp — I am the only candidate that is capable of doing so. If I am not the Republican nominee against Joe Manchin in the fall, Manchin will win,’’ he said.
Six Republican candidates are in the primary, including U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who was endorsed on May 3 by Kentucky’s junior U.S. Sen. Rand Paul.
Jenkins and Morrisey aso distanced themselves from McConnell during a recent debate, when no one raised their hands to say they’d support McConnell as majority leader.
Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted last week that he thinks a Blankenship nomination guarantees another Manchin term.