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Washington (AFP) – US Republican leaders are casting a concerned eye toward Tuesday’s Senate primary in West Virginia, where an ex-con coal baron has a shot at scoring a stunning upset in Trump country and claim the party’s nomination.

West Virginia is one of three US states where voters are choosing Republicans to take on endangered Democratic Senate incumbents, as President Donald Trump’s party seeks to maintain its control of Congress in November’s mid-term elections.

All eyes in political America are on the economically struggling Appalachian state to see whether divisive candidate Don Blankenship will win the nomination despite an all-out campaign by Republican leaders to stop him, because they fear he is too radical to prevail later this year.

Trump has already come out against Blankenship, tweeting on Monday that there is “no way” the candidate — who spent a year in prison over safety violations after an explosion at his company’s mine killed 29 workers — can win in November.

Trump urged voters to pick one of the race’s other leading Republicans — Congressman Evan Jenkins or state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, both of whom have expressed fawning support for the president.

But Blankenship, the former chief executive of Massey Energy, has swatted away the concerns, even proclaiming himself “Trumpier than Trump.”

Blankenship has run a highly controversial campaign. 

He has brazenly accused the government of action that caused the deadly accident at his mine, used racially charged campaign rhetoric including against the Chinese family of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife, and coined incendiary, Trump-like nicknames for his opponents.

“Today is the day we tell Mitch McConnell and the DC swamp that it’s time for a real conservative in Washington,” Blankenship tweeted Tuesday as he urged West Virginians to head to the polls.

– A party on edge –

Blankenship’s strong performance has spooked Republicans already bracing for losses as they struggle to maintain their control of Congress in a deeply partisan landscape.

For many in the party, the Blankenship race is reminiscent of a recent Republican election fiasco. 

December’s Senate election in conservative Alabama proved disastrous when Roy Moore, who was endorsed by Trump despite accusations he once molested underage girls, lost to a Democrat.

Moore was among a handful of extreme candidates in recent years who have won a Republican nomination — only to eventually lose their Senate elections.

But the anti-establishment fervor unleashed by Trump’s spectacular 2016 election win has proven hard to control.

– ‘Problematic’ –

The president and his party now appear alarmed that a primary win by Blankenship would sink the party’s chances of ousting Democratic incumbent Senator Joe Manchin — even in a state Trump won by 42 points in 2016 — and make it harder for the party to hold its narrow 51-49 Senate majority.

“I obviously think Mr Blankenship would be problematic as our nominee,” said Senator John Cornyn, the chamber’s number two Republican.

A group linked to McConnell has poured money into the race, releasing ads calling Blankenship a “convicted criminal.”

Blankenship, meanwhile, has grown increasingly defiant, using his fortune to blanket the state with ads attacking McConnell, whom he has branded “Cocaine Mitch” — in reference to drugs reportedly found aboard a cargo ship owned by his wife’s family.

Senator Jeff Flake, a conservative who has repeatedly clashed with Trump, warned that a Blankenship nomination would create a public relations disaster for Republicans.

Should Blankenship win the primary, “I think you’ll see a lot of Republicans making a contribution to Joe Manchin,” Flake said. “I certainly will.”

Republican Senate and House primaries are also being held Tuesday in Ohio and Indiana, while North Carolina is hosting primaries for a crucial set of House races. 

Among the congressional candidates in Indiana is Greg Pence, the older brother of US Vice President Mike Pence, who held the seat for a decade.

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