President Trump and the Republican Party avoided their worst-case fears Tuesday night in Senate primaries across the country, as voters nominated a slate of Senate candidates whom party strategists see as good bets to challenge vulnerable Democratic incumbents this fall.
The results came as something of a relief for a party that has suffered a series of setbacks in recent special elections. But Tuesday’s outcome also made clear that the current mood of the GOP remains angry, defiant and not the least bit satisfied with the change that has come to Washington over the past 16 months.
The winners of Republican Senate primaries in West Virginia, Indiana and Ohio prevailed in multimillion-dollar contests to prove themselves the most willing to take on the Washington elite. Their battles did not hinge on policy, since all the candidates basically agreed with the course set by Trump. They swung on attitude, style and outsider bona fides.
In West Virginia, former lobbyist and congressional aide Patrick Morrisey fended off a slash-and-burn campaign by former coal baron Don Blankenship by echoing Blankenship’s anti-Washington message. One Morrisey ad featured a mountain crushing the U.S. Capitol.
“Republican primary voters really, really enjoy eating red meat,” said Andy Seré, a consultant who worked on the losing Senate campaign of a third candidate in the race, Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-W.Va.). “Despite an overwhelming feeling among our base that under President Trump we are headed in the right direction in the country, they also continue to feel put down and disrespected by liberal elites.”
In the final weeks, Blankenship claimed to be “Trumpier than Trump,” called the Senate majority leader “Cocaine Mitch” and lambasted the “fake prosecution” that put him in federal prison. The late opposition from Trump, who cast Blankenship as unelectable in the fall, appeared to have undermined his momentum.
Upon conceding, Blankenship blamed Trump’s “lack of endorsement” for his loss.
Others were able to cast themselves as worthy heirs to the pro-Trump movement within the Republican Party.
Indiana businessman Mike Braun, who mocked Washington and called himself an “outsider,” won his nomination after refusing to wear a sport coat or tie to debates. His defining advantage was not being a sitting member of Congress like his two rivals. He also embraced the core concerns about immigration and unfair trade deals that had cemented the Trump coalition.
One Braun ad flashed the mug shot of a twice-deported Guatemalan immigrant accused of killing two in a drunken driving incident this year. “There are lives at stake,” he said of building a southern border wall. He defeated Rep. Todd Rokita (R), whose campaign slogan was “Change Washington, defeat the elite,” and Rep. Luke Messer (R), who called for Trump to get the Nobel Peace Prize.
As Republicans battled it out, there were no clashes of a similar scale on the Democratic side. Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, handily beat the closest thing to an insurgent campaign by liberal activist and former representative Dennis Kucinich (D) for his party’s gubernatorial nomination in Ohio. Cordray will face Attorney General Mike DeWine in November, a rematch of the 2010 race for state attorney general that DeWine won.
The relative calm on the Democratic side betrayed a deeper difference between the two parties. While Democrats are largely unified in their primary matchups, with relatively tame intramural fights, the Republican Party continues to molt into a more populist, anti-establishment version of itself under Trump.
That Trump’s election, along with Republican control of Congress, did not fully satisfy voter frustration remains a defining feature of the party. In late 2017, 19 percent of Republicans told Pew Research Center that they were “angry” at the federal government, down from 33 percent at the end of the Obama presidency. But the number remains more than twice as high as the 9 percent of Republicans who said they were angry in President George W. Bush’s second term.
Even for naturally upbeat candidates, frustration and anger have become the dominant emotion they must appeal to for the Republican base. GOP consultants nationwide have been telling even their mild-mannered candidates to turn up their fury on the trail. Don’t say you want change, say you want to blow up Washington. Don’t just talk about what you have accomplished, talk about what you will fight. Worry about political correctness at your own peril.
“The dominant note is that Washington is the enemy. Add to that a growing frustration over cultural issues,” said Steven J. Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC funding Republican candidates. “That often draws primary electorates to the person they feel is most likely to be a fighter for them, somebody who has an edge to their rhetoric.”
That has led historically mainstream candidates to sharpen their words. That’s what happened in West Virginia, where Morrisey, the state attorney general, adopted an almost cartoonish animosity to Washington, a place where he had worked for years, largely for pharmaceutical and health companies.
Jenkins, the third major candidate in the race, also tried to recast himself as a warrior against the building where he works. “I have been fighting the establishment,” he argued. “I have been fighting the swamp.”
A Democratic super PAC spent heavily on ads attacking Jenkins before the primary, since both Republican and Democratic strategists saw him as the strongest candidate to take on Rep. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), in a state that Trump won in 2016 by more than 40 points. Morrisey’s health-care lobbying past is seen as a liability in a state that has suffered greatly from the opioid epidemic.
As it became clear that he might lose, Blankenship signaled that he might continue to make trouble for Morrisey, even though state law prohibits him from running as an independent for the same office after losing a primary. He has long criticized Morrisey’s wife’s firm for doing business with Planned Parenthood.
“As you know, my opinion is that Patrick Morrisey’s associations with drug companies that covered us up with opiate drugs, and his association with abortionists makes it very difficult for me to be supportive at all,” Blankenship said. “And I would hate to see him represent the party.”
Republicans had worried that a Blankenship victory could spoil Republican chances in the fall, much as the controversial candidacy of former Alabama Supreme Court judge Roy Moore undermined GOP hopes for a Senate seat there in 2017.
Blankenship, who recently left prison after being convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety laws, ran on the conviction as if it were a badge of honor and evidence that he was standing up against government corruption that he blamed for the 2010 death of 29 miners in an explosion at one of his former mines.
His most memorable ad may have been one that referenced “China people” and labeled Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “Cocaine Mitch.” But his most emblematic was a spot that told voters repeatedly to embrace their fury. “West Virginians should be angry,” the narrator says over and over.
Few doubt that the anger is real among the GOP electorate across the country. Republican strategists describe a sense of alienation and frustration that has long affected the GOP base, first manifesting itself at the end of the last Bush presidency and then flowering into the tea party movement under President Barack Obama.
It has proved to be less ideological than cultural, as evidenced by Trump’s rise and the broad Republican support for policies such as increased federal deficits in the most recent tax bill.
Instead, strategists say, voters feel they have been rejected by a rapidly changing society, which now embraces gay and transgender rights and suffers from growing inequalities of income and opportunity.
David Miller, a white 54-year-old Ohio voter at a polling place in Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, pulled a Republican primary ballot Tuesday for the first time he could remember to vote in the governor’s race. Like many other voters, he felt he had been left behind.
“I mainly was a mainstream Democrat,” he said, before describing how that started to change before the 2016 election. “Every time I turned on the TV, there’s a Democrat calling me a racist and I just got tired of it.”
Afi Scruggs in Cleveland and Dan Heyman in Charleston, W.Va., contributed to this report.