CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Despite losing the Republican primary in a distant third place, convicted ex-coal baron Don Blankenship announced Monday that he will continue his bid for U.S. Senate as a third-party candidate, though it's unclear if the move violates West Virginia's "sore loser" law.
Blankenship will run as a member of the Constitution Party, which nominated him by a unanimous vote, his campaign said in a news release.
West Virginia secretary of state spokesman Steve Adams said Blankenship has officially switched his party affiliation to the Constitution Party. But Adams has said West Virginia's "sore loser" or "sour grapes" law prohibits candidates affiliated with a major party who lose in a primary from changing their registration to a minor party to take advantage of later filing deadlines.
In comments made before Monday's announcement, Mike Queen, who is communications director for Secretary of State Mac Warner, said Blankenship wouldn't be allowed to run in a general election.
Blankenship would "most likely have to bring a legal action to force the secretary to approve his candidacy," Queen told the Charleston Gazette-Mail in a story published Saturday.
On Monday, the office referred questions to its chief legal counsel, Steve Connolly, who said it was premature to focus on the legality of Blankenship's third-party candidacy.
"The only tangible thing we have right now is a party registry," Connolly said. "We don't have certificates of nomination or anything more than his press release. Once somebody files, then we'll come to a decision. As of right now, we don't have anything in front of us to decide."
Earlier this year, the Legislature strengthened state election code by specifying that candidates who fail to win their party's primary cannot become a candidate for the same office through a nomination or certificate process. That change is effective June 5.
Connolly said state code also requires anyone seeking elected office to be registered with their political party 60 days prior to the certificate of announcement.
West Virginia University constitutional law professor Robert Bastress said the "sore loser" law "is ambiguous" and is "subject to an interpretation which would say he could do it and one that says he could not."
To get Blankenship on the ballot, the Constitution Party would be required to obtain enough signatures equal to at least 1 percent of all votes in the most recent U.S. Senate race. That was in 2014, when 453,659 ballots were cast. The signatures must be submitted to the secretary of state by Aug. 1.
The race is expected to be highly competitive and could help decide control of the Senate as Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin seeks re-election. West Virginia gave President Donald Trump his largest margin of victory in 2016 and has trended hard toward Republicans in recent years.
In his statement, Blankenship said, "Although the establishment will likely begin their efforts against us by mounting a legal challenge to my candidacy, we are confident that — if challenged — our legal position will prevail, absent a politically motivated decision by the courts."
Blankenship said his personal views align with those of the Constitution Party, whose goal is to restore U.S. government philosophy to its biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its constitutional boundaries.
A former Massey Energy CEO, Blankenship spent a year in federal prison for violating safety regulations in a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 miners.
More recently, he took swipes at "China people" and referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as "Cocaine Mitch" in campaign ads during the Republican primary. Blankenship sold himself as "Trumpier than Trump" during the race, but the president opposed him.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey claimed the GOP nomination instead, setting up what's expected to be the most difficult re-election campaign of Manchin's career.
If Blankenship is successful in making it a three-way race, West Virginia Wesleyan College political history professor Robert Rupp said it "throws everything into uncertainty."
Rupp said the self-funded Blankenship's goal is to unseat Manchin, but a Blankenship candidacy could help the Democrats by potentially taking conservative Republican votes away from Morrisey.
Blankenship has "got means and he's got motive," Rupp said. "He's got millions of dollars to spend, he's got a cause he wants to fight for, and also he wants to be the center of attention. He was not going to yield being the center of attention in West Virginia politics just because he only got 20 percent" of the primary vote.