A lot of Republican candidates have tried to borrow Donald Trump’s attitude and his policies in their campaigns, but West Virginia’s Don Blankenship is the first to truly use Trumpian tactics.
In recent months, it’s become popular for GOP contenders to say they are Trumpy. Failed Pennsylvania House candidate Rick Sacccone argued he “was Trump before Trump was Trump,” a line also used by failed Virginia gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart.
Blankenship, who is running for the Republican nomination to face off against incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, went even farther Monday morning: “As some have said, I am Trumpier than Trump.”
The two men are similar. Both are wealthy, with Blankenship having made his money as a coal baron before selling his company and spending time in a federal prison after a mining disaster. Both are outsiders who dabbled in politics previously but never ran for office.
But what makes Blankenship particularly Trumpy is not what he’s saying, but how he’s saying it. His campaign for the Republican primary borrows from the Trump 2016 playbook in several key ways.
Here’s an overview.
Blankenship is blanketing the West Virginia airwaves
The Trump tactic: In his 2016 run, Trump exploited cable news’ fascination with celebrity and the daily outrage cycle to get near-constant attention, earning billions of dollars’ worth of free media. The goal was not persuasion, but persistence. By getting on TV constantly, Trump boosted his name recognition and made himself the center of the race.
How Blankenship is using it: Blankenship can’t run the same play, but he has vastly outspent his rivals on campaign ads. The ads are ridiculously low budget and not necessarily that persuasive, but air time is cheap in West Virginia and campaign ads are even cheaper under FCC regulations. It’s worked: The ads seem to have made the race all about Blankenship.
Blankenship is facing a divided Republican Establishment
The Trump tactic: In the crowded 2016 Republican primary, Trump benefited from being an outsider, dividing and conquering such Establishment figures as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Even though he failed to win a majority of support among GOP primary voters in early races, he had a strong enough base to carry him to the nomination.
How Blankenship is using it: Blankenship faces a smaller field with Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. But that’s been enough to divide up the GOP Establishment, which fears that he’s unelectable in the general election but can’t settle on an alternative. Even Trump, who weighed in against Blankenship in a tweet Monday morning, didn’t pick a favorite.
Blankenship is using racially inflammatory language — and not apologizing
The Trump tactic: Starting with a kickoff speech that called Mexican immigrants “rapists,” Trump used racially incendiary language throughout the 2016 campaign, slamming a Hispanic judge, a Muslim Gold Star mother and even retweeting openly white nationalist Twitter handles. He never apologized, though he often said he was the “least racist person,” and he did very well among white voters without a college degree.
How Blankenship is using it: Blankenship used the term “Chinaperson,” then defended it by calling himself an “Americanperson.” He ran an ad criticizing Mitch McConnell’s “China family,” then defended it by saying China is not a race like “negro, white caucasian, Hispanic, Asian.” “There’s no mention of a race,” he said. “I’ve never used a race word.”
Blankenship is using harsh nicknames to target opponents
The Trump tactic: Throughout his 2016 campaign, Trump used almost comically harsh nicknames to tear down his rivals: “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, “Low Energy” Jeb Bush, “Little Marco” Rubio and “Crooked Hillary” Clinton. The nicknames were silly and didn’t always work, but they helped define his opponents through their purported weaknesses.
How Blankenship is using it: Blankenship is not taking the tactic nearly as far as Trump, but a campaign ad — rated untrue by fact checkers — which criticized Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch” over an incident on one of his father-in-law’s ships was as close to a Trump-given nickname as anyone else in politics has tried.
Blankenship is blaming his own troubles on a rigged system
The Trump tactic: Facing a class-action lawsuit over fraud at his Trump University real estate program, Trump attacked Judge Gonzalo Curiel, arguing that he was being unfair to him because he was of Mexican ancestry. (Curiel was born in Indiana.) At other times, he blasted the FBI, the Federal Reserve, the Commission on Presidential Debates, the media and the elections themselves as “rigged” or “phony.”
How Blankenship is using it: Blankenship served a year in federal prison for conspiracy to violate mine safety laws after 29 men were killed at a coal mine his company ran. In his campaign, he’s argued that the Obama Administration and then-Gov. Joe Manchin targeted him for prosecution in part because of his views on climate change, even calling himself a “political prisoner.” There’s no evidence for his version of events.
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