Republican voters rallied behind candidates aligned with President Trump and party leaders in a trio of pivotal Senate primaries Tuesday, reinvigorating the GOP’s bid to hold and possibly expand on its majority in midterm elections.
State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won in West Virginia, defeating Rep. Evan Jenkins and divisive candidate Don Blankenship. Wealthy businessman Mike Braun prevailed in Indiana, defeating a pair of congressmen by emulating the president with an outsider campaign. In Ohio, Rep. James B. Renacci clinched his nomination with the support of the president.
In his concession speech, Blankenship blamed his loss on Trump’s decision to come out against him instead of support him.
“Thanks for playing, @DonBlankenship. #WVSen,” Team Mitch, the account for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), sarcastically tweeted Tuesday night.
The results capped a dramatic final week in which Trump used his Twitter bully pulpit to persuade voters not to pick Blankenship and throw away a shot at a winnable race. Republicans are defending a fragile 51-49 Senate majority, which they are increasingly framing as a last line of defense against a Democratic takeover of Congress.
Trump’s unpopularity in the suburbs and exurbs where Republicans have built their House majority has led GOP leaders to conclude that the lower chamber of Congress may be all but gone in November. That has spurred them to wage an urgent campaign to hold the Senate to protect Trump and his agenda next year. But Trump’s unpredictable nature and the swirl of controversies surrounding him has made their task more difficult.
The rise of Braun and the tone of the Republican campaigns in all three states underscored the deep animosity toward Washington that has persisted in the GOP even after Trump’s election. Braun ran in Trump’s mold, deriding the “swamp” and using his more traditional opponents as foils. Morrisey ran an ad in which a mountain smashes the U.S. Capitol.
Tuesday’s vote kicked off a busy stretch of the midterm primary season, with more than two dozen additional states set to vote before July 4.
In Ohio, the Democratic establishment prevailed as former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray captured the gubernatorial nomination, defeating former congressman Dennis Kucinich.
In all three states and North Carolina, House primaries offered a lens into the battle for control of the lower chamber of Congress. Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) became the first sitting House member to lose in a primary this year. With almost all of the vote tallied, he trailed Mark Harris, a former Baptist pastor in Charlotte, and conceded the race.
In West Virginia, a wild Senate primary with three leading candidates hurtled to its conclusion with Trump and other top Republicans trying to stop Blankenship, a former coal executive who has served a year in prison and has used racial epithets to describe black people and those of Chinese descent.
With more than 90 percent of the vote tallied, Morissey led Jenkins 35 percent to 29 percent. Blankenship was a distant third at 20 percent.
Another three-way contest wrapped up in Indiana, where Braun, a distributing and logistics executive, loaned his campaign more than $5 million of his own money en route to defeating Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita.
Braun sought to draw a sharp contrast with Rokita and Messer. In one ad, he erected cardboard cutouts of his opponents, both pictured wearing dark suits and red ties. In the ad, he asked people to try to tell them apart.
West Virginia and Indiana represent two of the Republican Party’s best chances to bolster its Senate majority in November. They are part of a GOP firewall of 10 states Trump won and a Democratic senator is defending.
Fears about nominating a candidate outside the mainstream escalated in recent weeks, particularly in West Virginia.
Republican leaders had worried that a win by Blankenship would cost them a plum shot at defeating Sen. Joe Manchin III (D). Trump won West Virginia by about 42 percentage points in 2016.
They were also concerned that the controversies surrounding Blankenship might spread to other key battlegrounds, dragging down Republican candidates across the country. It has caused painful memories of Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican who lost a long-held Republican seat last year after The Washington Post reported that he made unwanted sexual advances to teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
In the West Virginia Senate race, Republican leaders spent weeks warning that voting for Blankenship would be the wrong choice for a simple reason: He would be a weak candidate in the general election. They were hopeful that enough voters like Tom Vogel of Charleston would show up Tuesday. Vogel said he voted for Morrisey.
“Don Blankenship is just not going to win in November. And Morrisey is the better man anyway. He has the conservative views that I have,” Vogel said.
Mitchell Eggleston of Charleston said he voted for Jenkins — as a means of stopping Blankenship.
“I just can’t vote for Don Blankenship. There is no doubt that he was responsible for that mine accident. I don’t get into the details of politics, but I just think that he should not be involved in the state at all,” he said.
Robert Ehman of Charleston, W.Va., who voted for Blankenship, called him an “honest man” and brushed aside his imprisonment for conspiring to violate mine safety regulations after an explosion at one of his company’s mines killed 29 people in 2010.
“I think we need someone like him that’s a fresh face,” Ehman said.
Blankenship aggressively attacked McConnell in his campaign. He labeled him “Cocaine Mitch” in ads, referring to a drug bust on a ship owned by the company his father-in-law started.
He has called McConnell’s father-in-law, who was born in China, a “wealthy China person” and called out his “China family.” McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, is the secretary of transportation. She immigrated to the United States from Taiwan as a child.
Blankenship defended his language to a Roll Call reporter, saying, “We’re confused on our staff as to how it can be racist when there’s no mention of a race. There’s no race. Races are negro, white caucasian, Hispanic, Asian.”
He also faced an onslaught from mainstream Republicans. An organization called Mountain Families PAC that has ties to McConnell allies ran advertisements criticizing Blankenship, highlighting how badly GOP leaders wanted to defeat him.
Trump took to Twitter on Monday after McConnell encouraged him to speak out, urging voters not to pick Blankenship and reminding them of the Alabama debacle.
Braun will take on Sen. Joe Donnelly, a centrist Democrat who has been long been a top target of Republican strategists. Trump won Indiana by 19 points.
In the Ohio governor’s race, Cordray will face state Attorney General Mike DeWine, who defeated Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor for the Republican nomination. Gov. John Kasich (R), whose moderate views have put him at odds with many in his party, is term-limited.
Party strategists were watching a handful of House primaries Tuesday, including a competition for an open seat outside Columbus that triggered a showdown between moderate and conservative Republicans.
Renacci, who was the front-runner for the Republican nomination headed into Tuesday’s vote, will face Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Vice President Pence’s older brother Greg Pence, meanwhile, won the Republican nomination in Indiana’s 6th District.
Afi Scruggs in Cleveland, Daniel Heyman in Charleston, W.Va., and David Weigel, Michael Scherer and Mike DeBonis in Washington contributed to this report.