Four states held primaries Tuesday night, all in states President Trump won in 2016. Republicans avoided electing someone many thought would sink their chances of flipping the Senate seat in West Virginia. In North Carolina, an incumbent congressman lost his party’s nomination for his re-election and in Indiana two sitting congressmen lost the GOP nod for the Senate to an outsider businessman. In Ohio, establishment candidates in both parties took the nominations.
Here are our four big takeaways from Tuesday’s primaries:
Republicans — and particularly Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — woke up Wednesday with a weight off their shoulders. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won Tuesday’s marquee race. In West Virginia’s Republican Senate primary, Morrisey came in 6 percentage points ahead of Rep. Evan Jenkins and beat former convict Don Blankenship by 15 percentage points.
Republicans had been wringing their hands over Blankenship, who appeared to be surging in the final days of the race. Blankenship was the former Massey Energy CEO convicted of a misdemeanor related to a mine explosion that killed 29 men. During the primary, he had been on supervised release, which ended Wednesday. Blankenship also made headlines by attacking McConnell and his “China family,” a reference to the family of McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao, the current secretary of Transportation.
Trump won West Virginia during the 2016 election by 42 points and Republicans see Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin as a prime pick-off opportunity in the fall. Many worried that Blankenship would hurt their chances. Republicans, traumatized by the Senate seat they lost in Alabama because of a damaged candidate, had been sounding the alarm about Blankenship in the final days and Trump issued an eleventh hour tweet telling voters he was unelectable in the general.
Getting Morrisey may have bolstered Republicans’ chances in the state, but it’s still not a slam dunk, said Terry Sullivan a Republican strategist and former campaign manager for Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run.
“I think that candidates matter in races and I think people are underestimating Joe Manchin to be honest with you,” Sullivan said. “Yes, Blankenship would have an even harder time beating Manchin than any other candidate … but I think anybody is going to have a tough time beating Joe Manchin in West Virginia.”
Then again, Manchin lost 30% of the Democratic vote to challenger Paula Jean Swearengin, a point the Republican National Committee hammered Tuesday night with a email titled “Trouble in WV…?”
House members went down all over the place Tuesday night. In North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District, Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger became the first sitting congressman of the cycle to lose his primary. Mark Harris, a conservative pastor who came very close to beating Pittenger in 2016, labeled Pittenger a member of the “Washington swamp” and beat him by 3 percentage points Tuesday.
In West Virginia, Jenkins, a current House member, came in second in his bid for his party’s nomination for Senate. And in Indiana, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita both lost by double-digits to businessman Mike Braun.
Braun, himself, a former state lawmaker, played up his credentials as an outsider businessman. Braun argued that Messer and Rokita were basically the same career politician. In one ad, Braun carried cardboard cutouts of his opponents around his hometown of Jasper, where voters struggled to tell them apart.
But one congressman held on, Republican Rep. Jim Renacci in Ohio captured his party’s nomination with 47% of the vote.
Trump won all four of Tuesday’s primary states during the 2016 election and he remains popular with the GOP electorate, but voters didn’t reward candidates just because they aligned themselves with him. It wasn’t that Tuesday’s winners had rebuked Trump, it’s just that the most overt Trump supporters were not necessarily rewarded.
In Indiana, an analysis by Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group for USA TODAY NETWORK found that all of Messer’s and Rokita’s ads that aired through April included a reference to Trump, only 12 percent of Braun’s did.
Blankenship had fashioned himself in the mold of Trump, even declaring he was “Trumpier than Trump” after the president urged voters to vote against him.
Renacci may have easily won his primary in Ohio, but the fact that unknown businessman Bob Gibbons got 32% could be a red flag. Renacci was endorsed by the president, who came and campaigned for him multiple times.
Establishment Republicans may have been the obviously gleeful over Blankenship’s loss.
(Morrisey’s clear victory sent McConnell and his allies on a victory lap Tuesday night with the Kentucky Republican’s campaign team tweeting a photoshopped picture of McConnell surrounded by cocaine fashioned after the promo pictures of the Netflix show “Narcos.” The photo was a reference to Blankenship calling McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” based on a 2014 report that cocaine was discovered aboard a vessel owned by his father-in-law’s company. )
But there were plenty of other reasons for the establishment — in both parties — to celebrate Tuesday.
In Ohio, two conservative Republicans aligned with the hardline House Freedom Caucus, R-Ohio, went down to the more mainstream candidate. State Sen. Troy Balderson, who had been backed by retired Rep. Pat Tiberi, won both primaries for the special election (to fill the remainder of the term) and the midterm election (for next year) for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District.
Balderson beat Melanie Leneghan — a businesswoman and local government official — in both elections by just 1 percentage point. Leneghan had been backed by former Freedom Caucus chair Jim Jordan of Ohio.
Former NFL football player Anthony Gonzalez also beat hardline state Sen. Christina Hagan in Ohio’s 16th Congressional District. The House Freedom Fund, the Freedom Caucus-aligned super PAC started by Jordan, had donated to Hagen.
In the Ohio, both parties got well-known establishment politicians for their gubernatorial race.
Democrat Richard Cordray, the state’s former attorney general and the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, crushed the other candidates in his primary including ex-congressman Dennis Kucinich, by 39 percentage points. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine beat Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor by 20 percentage points.
The race will be a rematch of the 2010 attorney general race which DeWine narrowly won.
Contributing: Nicole Gaudiano in Washington, Tony Cook and Maureen Groppe in Indiana and Jason Williams in Ohio
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