DARK MONEY

No One Knows Who’s Spending Millions on the West Virginia Senate Race

Dueling super PACS are trying to, apparently, prop up and take down Don Blankenship. They’re doing it all without revealing their funders.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

One super PAC with links to national Democrats has spent more than $1.3 million primarily targeting a single Republican candidate in the West Virginia Senate race. Another, with links to national Republicans, has spent more than $1.5 million targeting a different Republican candidate.

The money represents a substantial investment in a primary in a small state. But what’s even more remarkable is that the groups have done it all without disclosing a single name of a donor funding their efforts.

It’s totally legal. The PACs have elected to adjust their filing frequency with the Federal Election Commission so as to shield who is funding their respective PACs until the primary ends. But it still underscores the gamesmanship that has erupted as the contest enters its final week, with the real possibility that Don Blankenship, the previously jailed coal executive, could end up the Republican nominee against incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin.

The Duty and Country PAC, which shares a Washington D.C. address with the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, has spent in excess of $1.35 million. Much of it has been directed at Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-WV), who has polled as a frontrunner in the GOP race. Some of it has gone against West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. None has been spent against Blankenship, leading observers to speculate that there is an inherent effort to lift him up so as to give Manchin an easier general election opponent.

Those directly involved in the spending strategy deny that they’re mischievously meddling.

“Our data from the beginning has shown that Morrisey or Jenkins will be the likely nominee,” Mike Plante, a spokesman for the PAC told The Daily Beast. “That’s why in making the calculations that we’ve done, we’ve adopted the strategy that we’ve adopted.”

A separate outside group, the Senate Majority PAC, has spent over $1.6 million so far, primarily on positive spots for Manchin.

But there is plenty of precedent for outside Democratic groups to secretly get involved, sometimes trying to bolster weaker Republican candidates in GOP primaries, with to some success. The group Highway 31, funded primarily by Senate Majority PAC, spent millions in Alabama for Democratic candidate Doug Jones and against Republican candidate Judge Roy Moore, all while being shrouded in mystery during the campaign. And Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) famously spent $1.7 million to boost Republican candidate Todd Akin, only to end up beating him in their general election.  

One way to potentially divine Duty and Country’s motives in the race would be to get a better look at who is funding its efforts. But the PAC has only reported receipts of $150 (a total that doesn’t even require disclosure of who gave it) and there won’t be more details forthcoming until after the primary race concludes on Tuesday.

One of the few names associated with the PAC that is publicly known is that of its treasurer. Booth Goodwin, is a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted Blankenship at his trial. Goodwin did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.

Blankenship, who served a year in prison after being convicted for a conspiracy to violate mine standards following the death of 29 people in a 2010 disaster, is the sole focus of another big spending PAC in the race. The Mountain Families PAC has spent over $1.5 million on the race, according to ad buying sources. And all of that money is being trained on the coal baron who is seen by Republicans as the weakest potential option to run against Manchin.

The PAC lists an Arlington, Virginia PO box as its address. And its treasurer, Ben Ottenhoff, previously formed a committee to fundraise on behalf of Luther Strange, the-preferred candidate of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) in last year’s Alabama Senate primary. He has also previously served as an assistant treasurer for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

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Blankenship is no fan of McConnell’s, having taken to dubbing him “Cocaine Mitch” in an obscure reference to a story from 2014 which alleged that drugs had been found on a vessel owned by McConnell’s wife’s family.

And the disgust appears mutual. McConnell and his team have made no secret that Blankenship is not their desired choice, with the Senate Majority Leader recently saying that he hopes voters “nominate somebody who can actually win the general election.”

That tension peppered Tuesday night’s GOP primary debate on Fox News. When the candidates were asked whether they would support McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, none of them raised their hands. Blankenship cartoonishly ducked down behind the podium.

In his subsequent answer, the disgraced coal baron not only accused McConnell of meddling in the election but defended his prior reference to McConnell’s father in law as a “Chinaperson.”

"I don’t see this insinuation by the press that there’s something racist about saying 'Chinaperson,'" said Blankenship, who brought red hats with the phrase “Ditch Mitch,” to the debate (He was not permitted to wear one). "Some people are Korean persons and some of them are African persons, there’s not any slander there."

He also said that McConnell “interferes with elections all over this country,” appearing to reference the money that has gone into this specific race.

“I'm not going to D.C. to get along, so that will be a failure because I don't intend to get along,” Blankenship said of having a relationship with McConnell. “I intend to make sure that we make a difference.”