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GOP primaries gauge the anti-establishment fervor Trump helped unleash

With both parties trying to put their best foot forward for November's general election, here are five things to watch in this summer's preliminary elections. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Chuck Burton/The Washington Post)
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Republican primary voters in West Virginia and Indiana are set to shape the future of Donald Trump’s anti-establishment political revolt on Tuesday, while testing the president’s own ability to steer the passions he helped unleash.

Don Blankenship, a former West Virginia coal baron who was convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety regulations, has been surging in several recent polls, despite unified resistance from elected Republican leaders in Washington, including Trump. The president told West Virginia voters to reject Blankenship in a tweet on Monday.

“Tomorrow, West Virginia will send the swamp a message — no one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote,” Blankenship responded, in a clear echo of the president’s rhetoric. “I am Trumpier than Trump, and this morning proves it.”

Blankenship is one of two wealthy self-funding business executives, like Trump, who have emerged with unexpected strength in a primary season that has played out like a televised game show with the singular goal of demonstrating fealty to Trump and fury at the nation’s political elites.

“That dynamic that elected Donald Trump that I thought was going to dissipate after 2016 elections is still there,” said Republican pollster Jim McLaughlin, who is working on other 2018 races.

In Indiana, the ascendant candidate is Mike Braun, the founder of a warehouse and distribution company who voted in the state’s Democratic primaries until 2012. Just like Blankenship, he is running against two more well-established GOP incumbents, who have spent much of the campaign attacking each other, as they calculated the outsider would face a traditional ceiling of support.

The outcome of the contests could help shape not just the future of the Republican Party but the odds of Democratic control of the Senate. Both of Tuesday’s contests are in states where Trump won by wide margins and Democratic senators are seeking reelection.

Democratic incumbents, meanwhile, are facing no serious primary challenges and few potential upsets in swing seats. The closest thing to a left-flank attack will play out Tuesday in Ohio’s gubernatorial primary, where former congressman Dennis Kucinich (D) is running against Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Polls suggest a Cordray win.

Republicans, meanwhile, remain concerned that a Blankenship victory will spell disaster in November. On Sunday, Trump spoke with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who urged the president to warn that Blankenship would not be able to beat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) in the general election, according to two people familiar with the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private conversations.

Blankenship was convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety regulations after an explosion at one of his company’s mines killed 29 people in 2010.

Privately, Republican leaders have discussed cutting ties with Blankenship should he win the primary, in an effort to protect other GOP candidates from the controversy that surrounds him.

“No way!” Trump tweeted about Blankenship beating Manchin, before referring to the failed 2017 Alabama Senate campaign of Roy Moore. “Remember Alabama.”

Blankenship also referred to Moore’s loss on Monday. After the president’s tweet, Blankenship said that he was probably more conservative than Trump and would not have backed the $1.3 trillion spending bill because it added to budget deficits.

“We all really like President Trump’s policies, but we know that he doesn’t get things right,” Blankenship said in a paid appearance on a local community-access television station. “He recommended that people vote for a guy that was basically accused of pedophilia in Alabama.”

Blankenship is no stranger to such rhetorical combat. He has called McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” in campaign ads, a reference to a drug-smuggling bust on a ship owned by his father-in-law’s family, and attacked the “China family” of his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. He has also used the words “Negro” and “China people,” while also arguing that he was not making racially motivated appeals.

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said he hopes Blankenship doesn’t prevail, “but if he does, I think you’ll see a lot of Republicans giving a contribution to Joe Manchin. I certainly will.”

“Let’s just hope and pray that doesn’t happen,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.)

Many Republicans cut ties to Alabama Senate candidate Moore after The Washington Post reported on accusations that he had inappropriate sexual contact with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.

McConnell, who prides himself on being unruffled by crises, has been making light of the Blankenship predicament in private. With a few friends, according to two people, he has begun answering his phone with the moniker “Cocaine Mitch.”

The Indiana Senate contest has similarly hinged on the ability of candidates to channel Trump’s unconventional style. Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), a former Indiana secretary of state, has been campaigning in a military surplus Humvee painted with the stripes of the American flag. Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), a former lobbyist and state GOP executive director, runs a clip of Trump’s inauguration in his campaign ads.

But the standout has been Braun, who has campaigned as a non-politician, forgoing the traditional sport coat and tie during debates while embracing Trump’s populist rhetoric.

“Politicians put Mexico before Muncie, Beijing before Bloomington,” the narrator says in one of his ads, referencing two Indiana cities. Unlike in West Virginia, Republican leaders have not expressed concerns over Braun facing Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) in November.

In both states, the Republican candidates have almost no policy disagreements. They all support the Trump agenda, including stricter immigration enforcement, a southern border wall, the recent tax-cut bill, and they vow to fight new gun regulations and limit access to abortion. They all describe themselves as conservatives, and have called for an end to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In some races, Republicans have tried with little success to encourage Democratic cannibalism. A super PAC has taken a similar tack in Ohio’s gubernatorial primary, running a TV ad that warns Democrats that Democratic front-runner Cordray once had an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

By contrast, Republicans have grown increasingly concerned about the primary for the open House seat outside Columbus, which was vacated by a moderate Republican who left for the private sector. It has turned into a proxy war between the House Freedom Caucus, which backs business executive Melanie Leneghan, and the moderate Main Street Partnership, which backs state Sen. Troy Balderson.

Both candidates are tacking hard to the right. “President Obama nearly destroyed the America we love,” Leneghan says in one ad. “With God’s grace, we elected President Trump, and he needs our help.”

In his own TV spots, Balderson offers the same agenda. “I’ll end sanctuary cities to stop illegals from taking our jobs, fight alongside Trump to implement his agenda and use conservative grit to build the darn wall,” he says.

In 2016, Trump won 53 percent of the vote in the district — less than he won in the Pennsylvania district seized by Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) this year. Republicans are nervous about Leneghan making it to the Aug. 7 general election, worried that she will be seen as too extreme for the district.

Democrats, meanwhile, have had more success interfering with Republican primaries. In West Virginia, a Democratic super PAC called Duty and Country has spent more than $1.8 million attacking Blankenship’s rivals, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins (R), with most of the money directed at Jenkins, according to a person tracking the spending. Another group, Mountain Families PAC, which was founded by a Republican lawyer with ties to McConnell, launched a separate television campaign against Blankenship.

Until this weekend, Blankenship’s two rivals had focused on criticizing each other, with large television campaigns of negative ads. Blankenship also benefited from his recent debate performances and unconventional campaign ads. Blankenship’s grumbling, deadpan delivery and defiant pose marked a sharp departure from typical Senate candidates.

Blankenship’s wealth has also proved an advantage. In the final week before the primary, Blankenship spent more in television advertising than the Jenkins and Morrisey campaigns combined, according to the person tracking the spending.

During a brief press availability on Monday in Charleston, W.Va., a reporter asked Blankenship if he really believed McConnell was connected to the drug trade.

“No,” Blankenship answered, “But I believe that if you’re going to hold me responsible for 7,000 people in 119 coal mines, that hauling cocaine on the high seas when you only have eight or 10 ships is something he should be focused on avoiding. And I think it’s something the public should be aware of.”

Josh Dawsey in Washington and Dan Heyman in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.

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