The primary elections now underway in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, and North Carolina mark the beginning of the 2018 midterms. We’re about to find out what sort of candidates Republican voters will put forward in November to try to hold onto the House and Senate, as well as what kinds of challengers the Democrats think can pull off their hoped-for “blue wave.”
Today’s primaries will be especially revealing because Donald Trump won every one of these states in 2016. Usually, that would mean the GOP could reasonably expect to do well in these states come November, no matter who wins the primary.
But these are not usual times, and over the past year Republican primary voters have shown an unfortunate penchant for selecting deeply flawed candidates like Roy Moore, whose loss to Doug Jones in December delivered the first Senate victory to Democrats in Alabama since 1992. Have Republicans learned their lesson?
In West Virginia, Another Possible GOP Primary Debacle
Maybe not. An Alabama-like primary debacle has been brewing in West Virginia, a state Trump won by more than 40 points in 2016. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is vulnerable, and either of a pair of Republican candidates, Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, could unseat him.
But there’s a third Republican candidate in the mix, Don Blankenship, a former coal-mining executive who spent a year in federal prison for his part in the Upper Big Branch mining disaster in 2010, which killed more than two dozen miners. Blankenship, who joined the race late, has been pouring millions of his own money into the contest and lately has been gaining in the polls.
Put bluntly, Blankenship is the next Roy Moore, not necessarily for his past crimes but because of his status as a populist outsider with weird, quasi-racist views. He released a campaign ad last week attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for, among other things, having a “China family” (McConnell’s wife was born in Taiwan).
In the ad, Blankenship stares into the camera and says, deadpan, “Swamp Captain Mitch McConnell has given millions of jobs to China people.” It ends with him holding two little girls and vowing to “ditch cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids.” It’s a strange and disturbing ad. See for yourself:
What in the world did I just watch pic.twitter.com/4eudpGAxp0
— Liam Donovan (@LPDonovan) May 3, 2018
But it gets worse! Asked by a reporter from Roll Call about his ad being racist, Blankenship responded with this: “We’re confused on our staff as to how it can be racist when there’s no mention of race. There’s no race. Races are Negro, white Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian. There’s no mention of a race. I’ve never used a race word.”
All of this has Republican leaders scrambling not to repeat the Alabama fiasco. Over the weekend, McConnell urged President Trump to weigh in on the West Virginia primary and try to dissuade Republicans voters to reject Blankenship. Trump obliged, invoking Alabama and encouraging voters to support either of the other two Republicans, Jenkins or Morrissey.
Maybe Trump’s tweet will help Blankenship’s GOP rivals in West Virginia, where Trump remains popular. But it’s unclear whether Trump’s involvement does much to help Republican candidates in general. It didn’t help in the Virginia gubernatorial election last November (Trump-backed Ed Gillespie lost to Democrat Ralph Northam). It didn’t help in Alabama (Trump endorsed Luther Strange over Moore). And it didn’t help in Pennsylvania back in March (Trump endorsed Republican Rick Saccone, who narrowly lost to Democrat Conor Lamb in a district Trump carried by 20 points in 2016).
Trump’s dismal endorsement record underscores just how unpredictable primaries have become for a GOP still reeling from the realignment brought on by Trump’s political ascent. Republican candidates facing primary voters must figure out how to tap into the anti-establishment fervor that carried Trump to the White House while distinguishing themselves from the likes of Blankenship and Moore—which, to be clear, shouldn’t be that hard to do.
Trump Looms Large In Indiana Primary
In Indiana, where Democrat incumbent Sen. Joe Donnelly is vulnerable, those tensions have created a circular firing squad of sorts in the Republican primary. Trump won Indiana by 19 points, and the three candidates vying for the GOP nomination there have fallen over themselves trying to claim Trump’s mantle while slinging mud at their opponents.
Rep. Todd Rokita has been especially at pains to present himself as a thoroughgoing Trump man. He reportedly carries a cardboard cutout of Trump to campaign events, wears a Make America Great Again hat in TV ads, and recently put up signs implying he’d secured a Trump endorsement. (He hadn’t, and Trump’s re-election campaign has asked Rokita’s campaign to take the signs down.)
Rokita refers to one of his two GOP opponents, Rep. Luke Messer, as a “Never Trumper,” even though Messer is also courting the Trump vote and recently said Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing together North and South Korea.
The truth is that from a policy standpoint, there’s not much difference between Messer and Rokita, which is why they’ve been trying to outflank one another through personal attacks and pro-Trump rhetoric. Their problem is that the third candidate in the race is businessman Mike Braun, an authentic Washington outsider who has self-funded an anti-Washington, anti-incumbent campaign and is poised to win the nomination. One of his most effective TV ads features Braun walking around with life-size cardboard cutouts of Messer and Rokita, both dressed in navy blue suits and red ties, asking people if they can tell them apart. (They can’t.)
Without being an over-the-top populist firebrand like Moore and Blankenship, Braun has been able to invoke Trumpism by denouncing career politicians, touting his real-world business experience and parroting the president’s rhetoric on the border wall and “bad trade deals.”
If Braun wins in Indiana on Tuesday, and if Blankenship loses in West Virginia, it might point the way forward for a Republican Party that hasn’t benefited much from Trump’s endorsements, and hasn’t quite figured out how to tap into the populist energies and discontents that gave rise to Trump in 2016.