In a state where politics is a spectator sport, Don Blankenship stands center stage. The chief executive of West Virginia's largest coal company is using his personal fortune to try to give Republicans control of the state Legislature - something they haven't enjoyed in more than seven decades.
To date, Massey Energy Co.'s chief executive has spent more than $1.8 million to promote 41 hand-picked GOP candidates through contributions and his personal political action committee, "And for the Sake of the Kids."
When talk turns to politics in West Virginia these days, it invariably leads to Blankenship and his agenda - parental notification of abortions for minors, increased spending for higher education, opposition to same-sex marriage and the elimination of the state's 5 percent food tax. The Blankenship factor is a staple of editorial pages and radio talk shows.
Big money talks
That has Democrats focusing more on Blankenship than their GOP opponents. Some have even enlisted support from popular Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin - a tactic seemingly unnecessary in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 2-1 ratio.
"You have to be scared of big money because big money talks, but the response I'm getting is resentment," said Delegate Barbara Hatfield, who accuses the Blankenship campaign of spreading "outright lies" against her.
By shattering Democratic control, Blankenship believes he can improve West Virginia's business climate and the state's quality of life.
Yet his crusade falls outside the traditional party structure. Not only is he paying the bills, he's calling the shots: His ads are developed with no input from the GOP.
In a sense, he is "getting rid of the middleman," said Robert Rupp, a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan College.
State Republican Chairman Douglas McKinney credits Blankenship's efforts with energizing the party, which he hopes will swell GOP ranks and increase contributions.
The party needs 19 more seats in the 100-member House and five more in the 34-member Senate to take control.
Blankenship's views about government and business were shaped in part by his mother, who ran a small gas station and grocery store in the southern coalfields of West Virginia. He also has said he is motivated by the frustration of watching others leave West Virginia for better opportunities.
Though his opinions are plentiful and his campaign ads aggressive, Blankenship is often soft-spoken in person, with dark, brooding eyes. But he isn't shy about appearing in his own "And for the Sake of the Kids" commercials.
He rose through Massey's ranks after challenging the United Mine Workers of America in the mid-80s in a bitter standoff. Massey is now a largely union-free company. He prefers to run the nation's fourth largest coal company from a prefabricated office in rural Kentucky, rather than Massey's corporate offices in Richmond, Va.
Blankenship's first foray into politics came in 2004, when he turned the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals race into one of the nation's most expensive and acrimonious. He spent $3.4 million to back Brent Benjamin, the first Republican elected since the 1920s. At the time, Blankenship said his "most productive donation" to West Virginia was to help create a more business-friendly court.
Bolstered by his early political success, Blankenship spent $650,000 last year to help defeat Manchin's proposal to sell $5.5 billion in pension bonds.
An additional $400,000 went toward an unsuccessful campaign to repeal the food tax. But that effort may have started something: Manchin has since proposed cutting the tax from 5 percent to 3 percent.
Some Massey shareholders wonder if Blankenship can successfully juggle politics and business at a time when his company needs his attention. After all, Massey paid Blankenship $33.7 million last year, four times the average for chief executives of other coal companies.
"I don't feel my involvement in trying to improve West Virginia government and managing Massey is conflicted," he said. "What I do politically is for the general good."
Production from 19 mining complexes has dropped steadily, as have coal prices, forcing Massey to lower profit expectations. Massey's stock has lost more than 40 percent of its value in the past 12 months.
A fatal fire in January at the Aracoma Coal Co. Alma No. 1 Mine is the subject of federal civil and criminal investigations. On Thursday, the state issued a report that said missing walls that control air flow and faulty firefighting equipment were key factors in the deaths of two miners.
The 56-year-old mining executive defends his ability to balance politics and business.
"The coal company I manage is the most successful ever to operate in central Appalachia by any measure," he said. "Those that understand that are OK with my involvement. Others probably are waiting to see."
Rupp doubts Blankenship's campaign will tip the political balance at the statehouse. He predicts the GOP will pick up eight to 10 House seats.
And not every Republican is enamored of Blankenship. Cabell County House candidate Tommy Smirl returned Blankenship's $1,000 contribution.
"Given how vocal Mr. Blankenship has been about what he wants done," Smirl said, "I didn't want to be a part of that."