National News

Congress is very unpopular and 5 other takeaways from Tuesday's primary elections

Posted May 9, 2018 2:47 p.m. EDT
Updated July 13, 2018 11:13 a.m. EDT

Primary elections in four Republican-leaning states rattled Congress on Tuesday night, as voters ejected a sitting member of the House and set up intense campaigns for the Senate in several battlegrounds.

Republicans averted a worst-case scenario — the nomination of an ex-convict coal baron in West Virginia — but faced warning signs elsewhere. Here are our takeaways from the evening.

— Congress Is Very Unpopular

Voters nearly always dislike Congress, but Tuesday was a vivid illustration of just how toxic the taint of Washington may be in 2018.

The night was a near wipeout for members of the House seeking higher office. Three Republican lawmakers lost campaigns for the Senate: Luke Messer and Todd Rokita in Indiana, and Evan Jenkins in West Virginia. A fourth, James B. Renacci of Ohio, won the Senate nomination but drew less than half the primary vote despite facing relatively unknown opponents and campaigning with President Donald Trump’s loud support.

Most alarming for Republicans was Rep. Robert Pittenger’s defeat in North Carolina, which may cost them a seat in the general election. But it was not just voters on the right showing dissatisfaction: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia saw 3 in 10 Democratic primary voters cast ballots for a low-profile liberal activist instead.

— The Mainstream Prevails in Ohio

A populist-oriented swing state that Trump won easily in 2016, Ohio could have been welcoming ground for fiery rebels on the left and the right. But Trumpian politics fizzled in several important primaries, and voters chose a thoroughly conventional pair of candidates for governor in Mike DeWine, a Republican, and Richard Cordray, a Democrat.

The race between DeWine, Ohio’s attorney general, and Cordray, the former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, could be as bland as it is important. And it is extremely important: Cordray, who quashed a far-left challenge from Dennis Kucinich, is the Democrats’ best hope to take power in Columbus after years of Republican rule. Should DeWine defeat him, it could send a grim signal to Democrats about their prospects in Ohio in 2020.

But the failure of insurgents in both parties may signal that this quintessential Midwestern swing state has not yet been remade in the president’s image.

— Manchin Is In for a Fight

Manchin, a conservative-leaning Democrat, has led a relatively charmed political life, twice winning races for governor and for the seat he holds now. But West Virginia continues to drift from its New Deal Democrat roots, and Manchin may face the most difficult race of his career.

His hopes for facing Don Blankenship, the former coal executive and convicted criminal, were dashed Tuesday when Attorney General Patrick Morrisey claimed the Republican nomination. Blankenship, who during the primary attacked Sen. Mitch McConnell’s family in racially charged language, would likely have been abandoned by Senate Republicans had he won the nomination. And he may have been unelectable by general election voters.

Morrisey, who first made his name by suing the Obama administration, will enjoy the full support and financing of the national party.

Also worrisome for Manchin were the number of Democratic voters who supported his primary opponent, who ran a nominal campaign. He lost about 30 percent of the vote and did even worse in some of the state’s coal counties, which are full of the sort of ancestral Democrats he will need to hold onto in November.

— Interventions Work

National Republicans and Democrats waded into the West Virginia Senate primary, and they found that interventions can be effective. First, a Republican group backed by McConnell’s allies spent heavily attacking Blankenship. Then Trump issued a tweet Monday warning West Virginia Republicans that Blankenship “can’t win the General Election in your State.”

Voters seemed to listen: The controversial coal baron finished third in what was largely a three-person race, taking just 20 percent of the vote.

Less immediately consequential, but still significant, was the role Democrats played in the state’s Republican primary, as a liberal super political action committee linked to Washington strategists aggressively attacked Jenkins. They feared that the Democrat-turned-Republican with a base in the state’s coal counties would be the strongest candidate against Manchin, and they wound up helping lift Morrisey to the nomination.

Perhaps most revealing of all, though, was a race that drew far less attention and where the incumbent got no outside help. Two years ago, Pittenger was nearly defeated in his North Carolina primary by Mark Harris, a conservative pastor. Washington Republicans believed that Pittenger would again ward off Harris, and they offered the incumbent no assistance. But it turns out he also needed an intervention: Harris won the primary by fewer than 1,000 votes.

— The Year of the Women, Continued

Women have found success in the early primaries of 2018, with the trend continuing Tuesday: Nineteen open House Democratic primaries had at least one female candidate and a woman won in 16 of them.

Some of the seats are safely controlled by Republicans and will not be competitive this fall. But the success of candidates like Liz Watson in Indiana and Kathy Manning in North Carolina, and of female Democrats across the four states that voted Tuesday, illustrates how much women are driving the opposition to Trump.

There are more women who are Democratic House candidates this year than ever, and the first primaries of 2018, beginning with Texas and Illinois in March, have demonstrated that they are not just running — they are also winning nominations.

— But It’s Trump’s Party

When Trump won the presidency, the Republican Party was fractured and important conservative leaders still opposed him. On Tuesday, not one Trump critic won a Republican primary. The major Republican candidates cast themselves as Trump allies and in some cases explicitly invoked him as a role model.

In Indiana, Mike Braun, a wealthy former state legislator, won the Republican Senate primary by branding himself as a Trump-like businessman and outsider. In Ohio, Renacci won the Senate primary with Trump’s endorsement. And Trump’s opposition to Blankenship in West Virginia may have helped doom him.

Even the more traditional Republicans mimicked Trump: DeWine’s campaign accused his primary opponent, Mary Taylor, of failing to back the president sufficiently in 2016. At one point, while attacking Taylor’s ethics, the DeWine camp tweeted #LockHerUp.

And Taylor, Ohio’s lieutenant governor, attempted political contortions to campaign as a Trump loyalist without disavowing the current governor, John Kasich, a Republican who is a fierce Trump critic.

Republicans may be more careful about embracing Trump in bluer states. So far, though, they are assembling a 2018 slate tied closely to him in every important race.