Sen. Rand Paul is inserting himself in a West Virginia Republican Senate primary Thursday because he wants to elect more senators like him.
His Kentucky counterpart, Mitch McConnell, is also involved in the West Virginia primary, but not in a way that he wants.
He's become smeared as "Cocaine Mitch" by a candidate whose assertions McConnell has emphatically called "ridiculous."
Paul will be in Huntington on Thursday, attending a get-out-the-vote rally with state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, whose campaign says it considers the Kentucky senator “one of the nation’s leading advocates for liberty and constitutional principles.”
McConnell, meanwhile, has been slurred as "Cocaine Mitch" by one of Morrisey’s rivals, former coal executive Don Blankenship, who accuses the Senate Majority Leader of “spending millions” to defeat him.
At a debate Tuesday night among the three leading Republican candidates, all sought to distance themselves from Washington. None would commit to supporting McConnell as leader.
Blankenship ducked behind his lectern at the question.
“McConnell’s been brought into this, but not necessarily by his own desire,” said Colton Henson, a Republican strategist who has run campaigns in West Virginia and Ohio, but is not involved in the Senate race. “They’re using McConnell as a prop to attack the Republican Washington, D.C. establishment.”
President Donald Trump won the state easily in 2016 and Republicans believe they have a good opportunity to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, in November.
But some operatives worry that the brash Blankenship, who served a year in federal prison for a misdemeanor conviction related to the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion that killed 29 men, would be a drag on the party not just in West Virginia, but nationwide.
In a press release Tuesday, Blankenship defended the ad, claiming that a company owned by McConnell's father-in-law "was implicated recently in smuggling cocaine from Colombia to Europe." McConnell's father-in-law, the press release claimed, had given McConnell and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, "millions of dollars over the years."
Blankenship's source is a 2014 story in The Nation, which alleged that cocaine was found aboard a ship owned by McConnell's in-laws. There were no further reports that the allegations were ever investigated.
That ad followed Blankenship's contention last week in a radio interview that McConnell may have a conflict of interest when it comes to foreign relations because his father-in-law is a “wealthy Chinaperson."
McConnell's affiliates declined to comment for this story, but McConnell last week dismissed Blankenship’s remarks about Chao's father.
"My father-in-law is an American who lives in New York, works in New York. I don't have any comment about ridiculous observations like that," McConnell told Fox News.
McConnell told the New York Times in February that he didn't want Blankenship to win the primary. Talking to Fox News, he said only that he "hopes it's somebody who can actually win the general election," without mentioning any names.
Morrisey is running as a "pro-Trump conservative fighter" and Paul's appeal reflects the views of Morrisey voters, Henson said.
"Do I think that there is a voter in West Virginia who will be influenced by Rand Paul who wasn't already in Morrisey's camp? Unlikely, but you have to rally your base and that's what he does for him," Henson said. "It helps with his narrative, that he will take on D.C."
Nachama Soloveichik, a spokeswoman for Morrisey, said Kentucky and West Virginia share a border and a number of issues, including coal mining.
Paul, she said, is "well known and respected for his conservative values and standing up for limited government."
Morrisey is one of several Senate candidates Paul has endorsed who aren't necessarily favorites of GOP standard bearers. The senator is also backing Kelli Ward in Arizona and Mike Gibbons in Ohio, where he will appear at a rally Thursday night.
In endorsing Morrisey, Paul said he'd "stood up for West Virginia taxpayers, defended the state from President Obama’s overzealous regulations, and expanded gun rights."
Blankenship, who has been hammered by outside ads he says are orchestrated by McConnell and the Republican establishment, has slid to third place in the race against Rep. Evan Jenkins and Morrisey, who are narrowly tied for first and second place in the May 8 primary.
An April Fox News poll showed Jenkins with 25 percent among likely primary voters, while Morrisey was at 21 percent and Blankenship had 16 percent. The edge Jenkins holds over Morrisey is within the poll’s margin of error, as is Morrisey’s edge over Blankenship, the poll said.
Despite the party divisions, Henson said he expected a united party next week.
"It will take McConnell and Rand Paul all to come together to beat Joe Manchin," Henson said. "A week from today it will be a big tent party."