In the final days before the West Virginia primary, breathless media coverage suggested that businessman Don Blankenship was gaining ground rapidly and had a real shot at winning the Republican Senate nomination. ABC News quoted a “national Republican operative” who said it’s “down to the wire” and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the controversial candidate won.
All this concern even prompted President Trump to tweet that Blankenship “can’t win the General Election” and encouraging West Virginia voters to cast their ballots for someone else.
But Blankenship didn’t win or even come close. Instead, he finished a distant third with just 19% of the vote. It’s possible that the presidential tweet turned the tide. But it’s even more likely that there wasn’t any real Blankenship momentum to unwind.
A couple of weeks before the primary, public polls showed Blankenship a distant third, trailing two quality candidates—Attorney General Patrick Morrissey and Congressman Evan Jenkins. A Fox News poll showed Blankenship picking up 16% of the vote, not far from the 19% he actually received on Election Day. It certainly doesn’t provide any sense of pro-Blankenship momentum.
The Blankenship-was-surging storyline came from “internal polling” leaked to the media. As a general rule, it’s wise to be very skeptical of such internal polls and to remember that the leaker has an agenda. But such skepticism was missing in the run-up to primary day as Politico reported that victory was “within reach” for Blankenship. Not only that, there were reports of “finger-pointing” going on behind the scenes in GOP circles. Some were blaming the White House, some the other West Virginia candidates, and some Mitch McConnell.
How did this happen? I suspect the story took off because elite journalists and national Republican political operatives were predisposed to believe it.
Blankenship was a horrible candidate. He recently spent time in prison on charges relating to a mining disaster that killed 29 miners. His campaign rallies and comments included racist and hateful commentary. Many in the national media believe that conservative voters are primarily driven by racial resentment, especially in places like West Virginia. So, it made sense to them that a candidate like Blankenship was surging.
On top of that, the West Virginia Senate race represents a prime pick-up opportunity for the GOP. Incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin is vulnerable in a state that President Trump won by 42 percentage points (68% to 26%). A good candidate could defeat Manchin and help the Republican party retain control of the Senate. Blankenship could not.
Sadly, many national Republican political operatives also have a condescending view of their party’s voters. They were ready to believe in a Blankenship surge because they feared those voters weren’t smart enough to understand what was at stake.
When the votes were counted, however, it was the journalists and operatives who looked foolish. Their frenzied speculation in the election’s final days were as far off the mark as their discussions about how big the Hillary Clinton landslide victory would be in 2016.
Once again, the elites demonstrated how little they understand the American people.