Don Blankenship Announces Third-Party Bid for West Virginia Senate Seat

Don Blankenship, who lost a brutal proxy fight with party leaders in the Republican primary, said he was already anticipating a court fight with “the establishment.”

WASHINGTON — Don Blankenship, the ex-convict coal baron who lost his bid for the Republican Senate nomination in West Virginia this month, said on Monday that he would run as a third-party candidate — raising the prospect that he could spoil one of Republicans’ best chances to pick up a Democratic seat in November.

But before Senator Joe Manchin III, a Democrat running for re-election in the deep-red state, celebrates a candidacy that could split the Republican vote, Mr. Blankenship must overcome West Virginia’s “sore loser” law, designed to keep failed primary candidates off the ballot.

Mr. Blankenship, who lost a brutal proxy fight with party leaders in the Republican primary, was already anticipating a court fight with “the establishment” over the matter.

“We are confident that — if challenged — our legal position will prevail absent a politically motivated decision by the courts,” he said in a news release on Monday.

Mr. Blankenship did not provide evidence or a legal argument to support the claim. But scholars who have studied the law said they could see a reasonable argument to overcome it.

For Democrats, the prospect of a third-party entry in West Virginia is a gift. Democrats have been trying to foment Republican divisions, especially in races against sitting Democratic senators in states that President Trump won.

In Ohio, they have highlighted misgivings that another losing primary candidate, Mike Gibbons, has with the Republican winner, Representative James B. Renacci, who will face Senator Sherrod Brown in November. In Wisconsin, they have egged on the Republican combatants slugging it out for the right to challenge Senator Tammy Baldwin in the fall. And intraparty fighting in Arizona could imperil Republicans’ effort to maintain the seat being vacated by Senator Jeff Flake.

Mr. Blankenship would have little chance of winning the Senate seat outright, but if he could make it onto the ballot, he could siphon off support for West Virginia’s attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, who won the Republican nomination. That could propel Mr. Manchin to re-election.

And even if his legal challenge fails, Democrats said on Monday that Mr. Blankenship could torment Mr. Morrisey with negative ads, and reach deep into his pockets to demonize the Republican leadership in Washington.

Mr. Manchin, who served as the state’s governor before winning a Senate seat in 2010, remains a popular moderate Democrat. But Republicans see the seat, in a state where they have won by huge margins in recent years, as one of their best pickup opportunities this fall.

Nachama Soloveichik, a spokeswoman for Mr. Morrisey, said that the campaign would comment on ballot issues “as they may arise” but did not mention Mr. Blankenship by name.

“Patrick Morrisey is the only candidate who can defeat Senator Joe Manchin and who will stand with President Trump for West Virginians,” she said.

A spokesman for Mr. Manchin declined to comment.

Mr. Blankenship has run a populist campaign not unlike Mr. Trump’s, complete with nativist attacks and allegations that the Justice Department under President Barack Obama corruptly prosecuted him for his role in a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 men.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, coordinated an aggressive campaign to sink Mr. Blankenship in the Republican primary, even getting Mr. Trump to voice opposition to his candidacy. In the weeks since Mr. Blankenship’s loss, Mr. Trump and other Republican leaders have expressed relief, saying they avoided a situation like Alabama, where a Democrat claimed a safely Republican Senate seat.

Mr. McConnell’s Senate campaign team went further, taunting Mr. Blankenship the night of his loss with a reference from “Narcos,” a Netflix series.

Mr. Blankenship did not appreciate the gesture and responded a few days later with an ad that blasted Mr. McConnell for making light of drug use and warning the Republican leader that “It’s Not Over.”

But it will not be easy for Mr. Blankenship to keep up the fight. West Virginia’s “sore loser” or “sour grapes” law appears designed to head off efforts like Mr. Blankenship’s. It states that a candidate who runs for the nomination of a major political party and loses “cannot change her or his voter registration to a minor-party organization/unaffiliated candidate to take advantage of the later filing deadlines and have their name on the subsequent general election ballot.”

Steven Allen Adams, a spokesman for Mac Warner, West Virginia’s secretary of state, made clear that Mr. Warner believes the law bans a candidate like Mr. Blankenship from seeking to step around the primary process.

Still, scholars said that the state had written the text in a way that leaves it vulnerable to challenge.

“It looks to me like West Virginia intended for there to be a ban on sore losers, including in legislation this year. It looks like they were intended to stop someone like Blankenship,” said Barry C. Burden, the director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “However, the law is not written perfectly.”

The State Legislature passed a bill in March seeking to clarify the law, but it does not take effect until June.

Mr. Blankenship, for his part, painted himself as a natural fit for the Constitution Party, which champions the “Christian character and heritage of our state, and the Bible as the basis of morality on which the legitimacy of our laws rest.” He cited his legal case as presenting himself as an “especially appropriate” representative of its values.

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