Don Blankenship’s third-place finish in the West Virginia primary shows outrageousness is not enough for a successful populist candidacy. With its focus on stoking animosity toward the Beltway establishment, the Blankenship campaign resembled a left-wing caricature of middle-American populists. His attacks on Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — whom he called a “swamp captain” and “cocaine Mitch” — veered into language that was almost certainly calculated to generate media controversy (as in the ad where he denounced McConnell for helping “China people” and getting payoffs from his “China family”).
Many pundits have compared Blankenship to President Trump, but this misses one of the core elements of Trump’s 2015–2016 primary campaign: He didn’t just say “politically incorrect” things — he also staked out policy positions (on immigration, trade, and so forth). Without those policy positions, he very likely would have been a flash in the pan. Blankenship didn’t even have an “issues” page on his campaign website. Blankenship turned the anti-PC rhetoric up to 11, but this was not enough to pull him over the finish line even in a three-way primary race.
Blankenship’s defeat is another reminder of the limits of a populist message focused solely on “triggering” the Left (as opposed to a populist-informed campaign that runs on issues as well as rhetoric). It’s possible that West Virginia Republicans looked to the example of Alabama in 2017 and saw that candidate quality does matter. Primal-scream politics might be good entertainment but not the best strategy for winning at the ballot box, let alone implementing a governing agenda.
The winner of the GOP primary, Patrick Morrisey, was endorsed by many players in the conservative movement, from Ted Cruz to Freedomworks PAC to National Review. Joe Manchin is a skilled campaigner, and Morrisey could have a tough race ahead of him. But, if he is to be successful, issues — not just affect — will likely play a role.