Here's a riddle for you:
What do Don Blankenship and any lawyer have in common?
No, it's not another lawyer joke. We have enough of them.
The answer is: They like to win and win big.
If Barbara Walters had been surveying West Virginia for the 10 most fascinating people of 2005, there's no doubt Blankenship, president and CEO of Massey Energy, would be near the top of that that list.
He has become a major player in West Virginia politics, and the end isn't in sight.
Now, all the state elected officials are waiting to see where his sizeable fiscal shoe will fall in the 2006 elections.
There's no doubt that Blankenship is a winner in the political arena. His $3.5 million contribution in 2004 was a major factor in the loss of former state Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw to Brent Benjamin, a relative unknown and the first Republican to be elected to the high court in decades.
Later in the year, when the Legislature and Gov. Joe Manchin called a special statewide election on a proposal to issue billions in bonds to pay off the massive state retirement debt, Blankenship gave another million dollars to fight the bond issue and call for the removal of the sales tax on food. The voters defeated the bond issue, and there's no doubt Blankenship's money figured prominently in its defeat of that issue.
When Blankenship began demanding that Manchin and the Legislature remove the sales tax on food, lawmakers didn't give him everything he wanted, but they cut the tax by 1 percent and promised to cut more in the future. Chalk that up to yet another win for Blankenship.
That's impressive for a poor boy born in Stopover, Ky., to a single mother. His rise to the top position with Massey Energy would make Horatio Alger take notice.
Everyone knows where he has been politically. The question now is where will he strike next.
Most legislators won't talk about Blankenship on the record. They don't want to draw his attention. But suffice it to say some of them facing a campaign in 2006 are worried.
Some of them no doubt shivered when they read what he had to say in a Sept. 23 interview with The Associated Press. He said he wouldn't be running for office.
"I like to do things that I can win," he said " and it wouldn't be worth it versus just helping other candidates do the right thing."
Does that mean he'll be supporting legislative candidates in the 2006 elections? Don Perdue, a Democratic delegate from Wayne County, says he sees some concern among his colleagues over what Blankenship might do.
"There is, I believe, at least some fear of Blankenship among Democratic legislators, Perdue said. "Any time someone can bankroll an opponent to the extent he can in a state legislative race, it's cause for concern. I believe the average successful house incumbent in the last election only had to raise around $20,000, so the ante would go up appreciably."
An outgrowth of upping the ante in legislative campaigns would mean, "a number of legislators, heretofore immune from engaging the federal reporting mechanism, because they raised less than $25,000, would have to report federally. And that's a real pain," Perdue said.
The palpable fear of Blankenship, Perdue says, seems only to exist among delegates who have recently had hotly contested races in general elections and who may be out of synch with Blankenship's agenda.
Most legislators feel that Blankenship is unlikely to give money in the primary.
"I don't buy this," Perdue said. "I think he would if he felt it were the only way he could uproot an incumbent."
But remember. Blankenship is all about winning. As Perdue says, "One risk he runs is becoming irrelevant if he throws a lot of money out there against selected candidates and doesn't beat them. I think the prospect of irrelevance is the one thing Don Blankenship would find very unappealing."
For that reason, Perdue says, he suspects Blankenship already has begun the polling "to identify who might be most vulnerable and will then move aggressively to unseat them and only them. One big loss and he loses traction and he knows that."
Blankenship doesn't like to lose and, when it comes to having a long-term impact on state politics, he can't afford to lose.
But that probably suits Blankenship just fine.
After all when it comes to Don Blankenship, it's all about winning and winning big.
Dave Peyton is a freelance writer who lives in Huntington.
Here's a riddle for you: