Coal executive Don Blankenship has a track record of upsetting voters by flexing his financial muscle to shape West Virginia's political landscape.
This time, he didn't spend a dime. All he did was pose in European vacation photos with the state's top judge, and that was enough to doom the re-election bid of the chief justice.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard's once-promising bid for a new term ended in defeat in Tuesday primaries after photos emerged in January of the two men vacationing together on the French Riviera and in nearby Monaco in 2006, while the coal company had cases pending before the court.
The photos plunged Maynard into a conflict-of-interest scandal that left him in third place in a Democratic primary race for two seats on the five-member Supreme Court.
"There is a very wide perception that Justice Maynard simply acted unethically," said Marybeth Beller, a political science professor at Marshall University.
Analysts said that Blankenship, the chief executive of Massey Energy Co., has a track record of arousing opposition among a heavily Democratic electorate whenever he wields his personal fortune for campaign financing. They believe his involvement in the vacation scandal likely compounded Maynard's plight.
Richmond, Va.-based Massey, the nation's fourth-largest coal producer, is a leading employer in West Virginia's coalfields.
Blankenship has weighed in on West Virginia's political scene frequently since 2000. During the last statewide election, in 2006, he bankrolled a $3.8 million advertising campaign that aimed to sweep Democrats from control of the Legislature's House of Delegates.
Instead, Democrats picked up seats that year. A GOP analysis later concluded that Blankenship spurred Democrats, who outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-1, to rally behind the incumbents he targeted and defeat the challengers he endorsed.
"It was pretty well demonstrated that association with him was a negative," state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey said Wednesday.
Tuesday's voters may also have remembered Blankenship's previous interest in the state Supreme Court. He spent an estimated $3.5 million in 2004 to defeat incumbent Democratic justice Warren McGraw and elect Republican Brent Benjamin in his place.
With his executive compensation calculated by The Associated Press at $23.7 million in 2007, Blankenship is well-known for his hard-nosed approach. He displays a bullet hole-scarred television in his office, a keepsake from a long-ago labor dispute.
He prefers to run his company from a prefabricated building in rural Kentucky, rather than Massey's corporate headquarters in Richmond, Va.
Daniel Pedrotty, director of the AFL-CIO Office of Investment, considers Blankenship's political activity unique in corporate America.
"It's very unusual for a CEO to be that visible around funding his own set of campaign initiatives," Pedrotty said. "I really can't think of a similar example of someone who's that visible in trying to push his own agenda."
Maynard and Blankenship each declined comment Wednesday.
The Republicans have only one nominee, Charleston lawyer Beth Walker, in the two-seat Supreme Court race.
Critics of Blankenship's 2004 spending had cited verdicts against Massey that were on or heading to appeal at the time, including one that topped $76 million. Maynard and Benjamin were later part of the 3-2 majority that voted to overturn that judgment, awarded after a jury found Massey had hijacked a lucrative supply contract.
The Monaco photos prompted Maynard to quit the case, and the remaining justices agreed to rehear it. The court again reversed the judgment in an April 3-2 ruling, with Benjamin rebuffing recusal requests and again siding with the majority.
In withdrawing from that and other Massey-related appeals, Maynard has denied any wrongdoing. He instead attributed the Monaco meeting to a decades-long friendship with Blankenship.
"I don't think that helped Justice Maynard a bit, to be associated with Don Blankenship, even if Don Blankenship was not actively involved in his campaign," Casey said.
AP writer Tim Huber contributed to this report.