Incumbent Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who is fighting to secure reelection this year, avoided giving a straight answer when asked on Wednesday about controversial comments made by a failed candidate in the West Virginia race.
During an interview with NBC's Kasie Hunt, Manchin struggled to answer a question about the disparaging ads Don Blankenship ran castigating Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) and his wife, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, in the weeks leading up to the primary. Blakenship had hoped to challenge Manchin in November but failed to secure the Republican nomination during Tuesday's West Virginia primary.
"Did you think the ads he ran at the end of the campaign were racist?" Hunt asked.
Manchin looked physically uncomfortable with the question posed, a feeling cemented by the senator's stumbling as he started to respond.
"I, I don't know. You know? I would not… I like to think that wasn't [his intention with] the terms he used and how he used them," Manchin started.
It appeared the senator, who has cultivated the image of being a ‘straight-shooter,' was attempting to distance himself from the ads without offending Blankenship or the voters who backed his candidacy.
"I would never take that course, and if Don felt that that was not, [that] he was explaining it from his… his upbringing, or basically the culture where he comes from," Manchin stated.
Manchin then suggested the insulting comments might be explained by the area of West Virginia where Blankenship grew up.
"That's not how we talk where I come from in West Virginia," he said. "Don's on that Kentucky-West Virginia border. I don't know. I can't really say. I have not heard that before and you know those Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans. You know, we're all ethnic of some derivative."
The senator then admitted Blankenship's comments about "China people" could be construed as offensive.
"But the way it was said, it was taken in the connotation that might not have been flattering to a person who is a proud American, no matter what their decent may be," Manchin said.
Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy who went to prison for violating federal mine safety standards that resulted in the death of 29 miners, ran a controversial campaign for the Republican nomination.
In the midst of the campaign, Blankenship made headlines by attacking McConnell and the Washington, D.C. political establishment. In racially charged television ads, Blankenship referred to McConnell as "cocaine Mitch," claimed he was a "swamp captain," and alleged the majority leader had received "tens of millions of dollars" from his "China family." Blankenship also labeled McConnell's father-in-law a "wealthy China person" during a radio interview.
On Monday, President Donald Trump, who carried West Virginia by 42 points in 2016, invoked Roy Moore's loss in Alabama when urging Republican primary voters to support any Republican but Blankenship.
Manchin's unwillingness to denounce Blankenship, combined with other comments the senator has made about the controversial figure, signifies the senator may be making a play for the voters who backed the former energy magnate in the Republican primary. Manchin claimed on Tuesday that Blankenship "was the only true conservative" candidate who ran for the Republican nomination.
Shortly before losing the primary, Blankenship left the door open to supporting Manchin in the general election.