Republicans wrapped up three crucial U.S. Senate primaries in West Virginia, Indiana and Ohio on Tuesday by nominating candidates who embraced President Donald Trump, while Democratic voters rejected insurgents from the left to stick with the party’s mainstream.
In West Virginia, the GOP establishment dodged a bullet as controversial former coal executive Don Blankenship, who drew Trump’s opposition, placed third in a Senate primary won by state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. The newly minted nominee showered praise last month on Trump’s commitment to West Virginia, saying his "policies really have made an incredible difference in our state."
In Indiana, Republican Mike Braun convincingly defeated congressmen Luke Messer and Todd Rokita. All three fought over who was more supportive of Trump. The CEO of automotive products firm Meyer Distributing and a former state representative, Braun prided himself on being a businessman who isn’t a creature of Washington.
Ohio U.S. Representative Jim Renacci won the Republican nomination for Senate to take on Democratic incumbent Sherrod Brown, who had no primary opponent. Renacci demonstrated his loyalty to Trump by signing a letter last week nominating the president for a Nobel Peace Prize. Trump endorsed the congressman in the primary.
The Senate races in West Virginia, Indiana and Ohio may be pivotal in determining whether Republicans hang on to their 51-49 majority in the chamber. They are three of the 10 states that Trump won in 2016 and where an incumbent Democrat is running for re-election. Historical trends and Trump’s stubbornly low approval ratings have raised Democrats’ hopes that they can win control of the House, and possibly the Senate, after the Nov. 6 elections.
Indiana and West Virginia are particularly inviting targets for Republicans seeking to flip a Democratic seat, given Trump’s margins of victory in those states and the party’s dominance in state government.
In Indiana, Braun boasted during a recent debate that he “looks more like Donald Trump” because he’s an “outsider that has done something in the real world.”
Claiming victory Tuesday night, Braun continued to frame the race as a referendum on support for Trump, taking a shot at Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly as insufficiently loyal to the president. "When he’s in Indiana he acts like one of us, but in Washington he votes against us, against President Trump and in lockstep with the Democrats," Braun said.
Donnelly, one of the most conservative Democratic senators, ran unopposed for renomination. West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who has broken with Democratic leadership to vote for parts of Trump’s agenda, crushed Paula Jean Swearengin, who ran as a progressive alternative.
The races in both states are classified as tossups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, while the Ohio contest is rated as “lean Democratic.”
Blankenship’s Prison Term
West Virginia might have been an even more difficult contest for Republicans had Blankenship, who served a year in prison in connection with a 2010 mine explosion that killed 29 workers, been able to ride a late surge of support to a victory.
Trump took the unusual step of interceding in the West Virginia Republican contest and evoked last year’s special election for the Senate in Alabama, in which a Democrat defeated a highly controversial Republican candidate. On Monday he tweeted: “Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State...No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!”
Brian Howey, publisher of the nonpartisan Howey Politics Indiana political report, said that pledging fealty to Trump carries risks for Republican candidates in November.
“The president’s standing with independent voters is pretty poor, and whoever is running in November is going to need those independent voters. There are real dangers in tacking too close to Trump,” he added.
In another Ohio race, former Obama administration official Richard Cordray, who was head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, easily won the Democratic nomination for governor in Ohio. He defeated Dennis Kucinich, the staunchly liberal ex-congressman who had the backing of Our Revolution, an advocacy group set up by allies of Senator Bernie Sanders.
Cordray will face Republican Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator who defeated Cordray for attorney general in 2010, in November.
"Congratulations to Mike Dewine on his big win in the Great State of Ohio," Trump said on Twitter on Wednesday. "He will be a great Governor with a heavy focus on HealthCare and Jobs. His Socialist opponent in November should not do well, a big failure in last job!"
The Cordray nomination comes after Democratic voters in the Trump era have selected a variety of centrist candidates for governor, including Ralph Northam in Virginia and Phil Murphy in New Jersey last year, and J.B. Pritzker in Illinois, who was nominated last month.
With their party out of power, Democratic voters so far have been supportive of mainstream candidates over those from the insurgent wing, and more lenient with their nominees in red states.
That’s in contrast to the direction taken by Republican voters after the last time they were swept out of power in 2008. In subsequent elections, GOP primary voters tossed out centrists willing to compromise with Democratic President Barack Obama such as former Indiana Senator Richard Lugar and Utah Senator Bob Bennett. They also nominated candidates who proved too radical to win the general election, such as Sharron Angle in Nevada, Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana.
In North Carolina there’s no race for governor or Senate this year, but voters renominated a group of House members, including two Republicans likely to face competitive races: Ted Budd and George Holding. Incumbent Representative Robert Pittenger lost his race in the Republican primary to a right-wing insurgent who labeled him too “liberal.”
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