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West Virginia primary is a national nail-biter for the GOP

Republican voters in West Virginia will choose a candidate Tuesday to run against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November -- one of the GOP’s best chances to pick up a U.S. Senate seat. The top two candidates in past polls, Congressman Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, are fighting off a headline-grabbing insurgent: former coal executive Don Blankenship. Lisa Desjardins reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now to West Virginia, where, tomorrow, Republican voters will choose their candidate to run against Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in November. It's one of the GOP's best chances to pick up a U.S. Senate seat.

    It is also a test of the Trump factor, with a controversial candidate aiming for the president's outsider momentum, even though two other top candidates have Mr. Trump's support.

    Lisa Desjardins reports.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In the Mountain State, a wild primary race and a Republican family feud.

  • Woman:

    It's gotten a little mean-spirited at times.

  • Woman:

    Silly.

  • Man:

    Ugly.

  • Man:

    Chaos.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The top two candidates in past polls, Congressman Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, are fighting off a headline-grabbing insurgent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Former coal executive Don Blankenship was sentenced today to a year in federal prison.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Sentenced for conspiring to violate mining safety laws, Blankenship was released from prison last May.

  • Don Blankenship, R-W.V.:

    I think that they like somebody who'll keep fighting even when they're the underdog.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The once-feared CEO now presents himself as a gentle listener, an outsider who wants to rattle Congress.

  • Don Blankenship, R-W.V.:

    You can't change Washington or change the culture of a company or anything without controversy.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But he is also one of the most hated men in the state. In 2010, 29 miners died in an explosion at one of his mines, Upper Big Branch, or UBB.

    Federal investigators concluded Blankenship's company, Massey Energy, was reckless at the mine. He was convicted of general conspiracy. Blankenship blames the actions of federal mining inspectors for the explosion.

    You know, I was at UBB, and I talked to the miners in that mine, and they told me that they did feel the mine was unsafe. And they felt — some of them told me they thought Massey was unsafe.

    Did you ever consider that your company was unsafe?

  • Don Blankenship, R-W.V.:

    That mine didn't blow up because of anything Massey did. It blew up because of what the government did.

  • Patrick Morrisey:

    Time after time after time, we sued Obama, and we won for West Virginia.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Attorney General Morrisey uses a more traditional playbook, with endorsements like that of Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. He points to his lawsuits on behalf of the West Virginia to end Obama era regulation.

  • Patrick Morrisey:

    I believe strongly we have to talk about my conservative record of success.

  • Evan Jenkins, R-W.V.:

    People don't understand rural West Virginia.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Congressman Evan Jenkins, a former Democrat, is working to prove he too is conservative here at a gun store outside Morgantown.

    He argues he is the most likely to defeat Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, helping Republicans increase their Senate margin.

  • Evan Jenkins, R-W.V.:

    We are in ground zero of the best of the best opportunities. So what's at risk for Republicans nationally? This is about control of the United States Senate.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The three-man battle is a national nail-biter. Some groups have launched anti-Blankenship ads, including a $750,000 buy from a super PAC linked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, petrified a Blankenship election could doom the GOP in the fall.

  • Narrator:

    Who will clean up Washington? Not convicted criminal Don Blankenship.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Blankenship has waged war back, controversially saying Leader McConnell is pro-China because his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, is of Chinese descent and her father is a shipping tycoon.

  • Don Blankenship, R-W.V.:

    Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Like most primaries, this one will be decided by a relatively small group of voters, the most ardent conservatives in one of the most conservative states.

    And they seem to have two things in common, love of President Trump and hatred of Washington, both themes in last week's debate.

  • Evan Jenkins, R-W.V.:

    You know, I proudly endorsed President Trump in the May primary of 2016.

  • Patrick Morrisey:

    I'm the only candidate on the stage who not only has voted for Donald Trump at the convention and in the Electoral College.

  • Don Blankenship, R-W.V.:

    You can't drain the swamp being like the swamp.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But today, in another sign that Blankenship is a real contender, President Trump rang in, tweeting; "Don Blankenship can't win the general election in your state. No way."

    At an annual shrimp feast in Bluefield, we found undecided voters Larry and Brenda Bowman (ph).

  • Man:

    We will pray about it. Let's put it that way..

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Thinking less about which candidate they like, and more about which is the most like President Trump.

  • Woman:

    I will be voting…

  • Man:

    Yes, we will be there voting.

  • Woman:

    … Republican, so that President Trump will have someone to work with.

  • Man:

    Yes, we need somebody here that is going to back up Trump, because I think Trump is doing the right thing. And we need somebody here who is going to back Trump up.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    How voters decide here will impact Republicans' national landscape and show what voters think it needs to support President Trump.

    Traveling across West Virginia, for the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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