Once it became clear Tuesday night that Don Blankenship would not be a Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, a jubilant Betty Harrah logged onto Facebook to show her gratitude to her fellow West Virginians.
“For the first time in 8 years I feel like dancing,” Harrah wrote. “Thanks everyone that did not vote for a certain person.”
Harrah has been living the last eight years with the Upper Big Branch mining disaster weighing on her. Her brother, Steven Harrah, along with 28 other men, died in the 2010 catastrophe in Montcoal, West Virginia. A series of investigations found that the disaster could have been prevented had the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, not routinely skirted safety regulations and put profits before miners’ lives.
The credible Senate run made by Blankenship, Massey’s unrepentant former chief executive, has made the Upper Big Branch tragedy feel like yesterday to Harrah and other families who lost loved ones. But his third-place finish behind Rep. Evan Jenkins and victor Patrick Morrisey in Tuesday’s primary restored their faith in their fellow voters, knowing that a candidate who served a year in prison on a conspiracy conviction was rejected.
“It was relief,” Harrah said Wednesday morning. “Just to know we don’t have to look at him anymore.”
Despite investigators’ findings, Blankenship has never taken responsibility for what happened at Upper Big Branch. Instead, he has propagated conspiracy theories, blaming the government for his workers’ deaths and his prosecution, and claimed the explosion was the result of an influx of natural gas in the mine. Investigators found the explosion’s central cause was excessive coal dust that Massey failed to keep in check.
Apparently not enough voters bought Blankenship’s claims about Upper Big Branch, or his insistence that he’d bring more jobs back to the state’s coal fields, to send him into a general election against Sen. Joe Manchin (D). Blankenship received 20 percent of the GOP primary vote, compared with Jenkins’ 29 percent and Morrisey’s 35 percent.
To Tommy Davis, who worked at Upper Big Branch and survived the blast, Blankenship’s campaign was an insult he couldn’t escape, seeing him on television and hearing his voice over the radio in ads the millionaire paid for. The disaster took Davis’ son, Cory Davis; his brother, Timmy Davis; and his nephew, Joshua Napper.
On Wednesday morning, Davis was looking forward to moving on.
“I’m feeling awesome,” he said.
In the weeks ahead of the primary, Davis was telling anyone who would listen not to vote for Blankenship, that the man put money before human life and should not represent West Virginia. Davis even confronted Blankenship at a Republican meet-and-greet, telling him he was to blame for the deaths at Upper Big Branch.
I think West Virginia sent him a message last night that he's not wanted here. Tommy Davis, who lost three relatives at Upper Big Branch
Nervous about Blankenship’s supposed surge late in the campaign, Davis spent Tuesday turkey hunting in the woods, trying to stay off the internet and away from the television until the final results came in.
“I think West Virginia sent him a message last night that he’s not wanted here,” Davis said. “Hopefully he’ll pack his stuff and go back to Las Vegas,” where Blankenship maintains his primary residence.
“If not, I’ll keep hounding him,” David added.
The Upper Big Branch disaster made Blankenship the face of greed and recklessness for many West Virginians. In 2016, he was convicted of one misdemeanor charge of conspiring to violate mine safety laws ― a charge not directly connected to the mining deaths ― leading to his one-year sentence at a federal prison in California.
Republican leaders all the way up to President Donald Trump urged voters to reject the disgraced coal baron ― not because he led a company that systematically endangered workers, but because they felt he would be a weak candidate in a general election. Trump won West Virginia by a whopping 42-percentage-point margin in 2016, which makes the GOP hopeful it can snatch the Senate seat from Manchin with the right challenger.
On the eve of the primary, Trump tried to remind his fellow Republicans of the cautionary tale of Roy Moore, the far-right candidate who won the Alabama GOP primary but later lost the general election after The Washington Post reported that he’d pursued sexual relationships with teenage girls. “Don Blankenship... can’t win the General Election in your State... No way!” Trump tweeted Monday. “Remember Alabama.”
Robert Atkins believes the president’s tweet influenced the primary. Atkins lost his son Jason at Upper Big Branch. During the campaign, he made a point of going to Blankenship’s events in order to speak directly to undecided voters and rebut Blankenship’s claims about what happened at the mine. When there were no campaign events, he went anywhere there were crowds ― like local baseball games ― to urge people to vote against Blankenship.
Atkins said he was happy to see the primary results, though he doesn’t believe Blankenship will quietly go away, even after a decisive loss. West Virginia election law has a “sore loser” provision that prevents someone who lost a primary from running as an independent in the general election. Still, Blankenship could feasibly urge voters to cast write-in votes for him, or launch another bid in the next election cycle.
If the coal baron stays in politics, Atkins said he will continue speaking out.
“As long as there’s a chance of his face being in the picture, I’m going to hurt him all I can hurt him,” Atkins said. “He wants to clear his name. He can’t live with having that burden on his shoulders, but he was responsible for what happened.”