He expressed admiration for how Beijing exercises central control over its economy.
“Americans confuse the words communism and dictatorship,” he said. “The Chinese are running a dictatorial capitalism and it’s very effective. That’s the way corporations are run. Corporations are not a democracy.”
Before his foreign travel was restricted after his arrest in 2014, Mr. Blankenship was a frequent enough visitor to China that he opened a bank account there. “When I go over there I don’t have to carry a lot of money with me,” he said in the interview. “If you go over there and you spend some time, you can easily spend a good bit of money.”
Ms. Hobbs and Mr. Blankenship formed a business together in 2012, Generator World, to import home generators made in China. According to records from Panjiva, which tracks global trade, a shipment of 386 items was sent from Fuzhou, China, the next year to Ms. Hobbs’s company, Amerasia International.
“They arrived and we did sell them, but we didn’t grow the business or continue it,” Mr. Blankenship said. “I wasn’t in a position to do that.” It was a dry reference to his trial, sentence and one-year parole, which will end the day after the May 8 primary.
In the absence of much public polling, the clearest sign that Mr. Blankenship is a threat in the race is the hefty advertising budget of national Republicans who seek to disqualify him with voters.
Otherwise, signs of his support can be elusive. He draws sparse crowds to his events, and when he appears at multicandidate gatherings, he shows little knack for political skills. Rather than working a room, he keeps to himself, as he did at the Mineral County Lincoln Day dinner on Friday in Keyser.
“I don’t think someone who’s on parole at this moment in time should be running for office,” Jessica Imes, a voter at the dinner, said.