National News

Battle to Control the Senate Begins in the Trump Heartland

Posted May 7, 2018 10:20 p.m. EDT

Tuesday is decision day for contested Republican Senate primaries in Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia — three states that broadly supported President Donald Trump in 2016.

The candidates’ strategies have often boiled down to an extended presidential hug, with unsubtle efforts to attach their cause to Trump’s.

The winners will all face Democratic incumbents in November, in races that could determine the balance of the Senate: The Democrats up for re-election in those three states are vulnerable, if only Republicans can avoid sabotaging themselves.

West Virginia

— Can Trump’s Criticism Stop an Ex-Convict?

Trump has made his choice. Sort of.

He knows, at least, whom West Virginians should not vote for, starting his week with a Monday morning tweet urging them against supporting Don Blankenship, a former coal mining executive who spent a year in prison for his role in a fatal mining explosion.

The president did not say Blankenship was unqualified, despite this history and a campaign premised at times on largely baseless attacks against Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate majority leader whom Blankenship has labeled “Cocaine Mitch.” Instead, Trump’s argument was electoral: Blankenship, he said, “can’t win” in a general election, even in a state that gave the president 68 percent of its vote in 2016.

“Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!” Trump wrote, plugging the two more conventional Republican candidates, Rep. Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. They are hoping to take on Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat who has aligned himself at times with Trump.

But Trump’s tweet speaks to the challenge of stopping an insurgent like Blankenship: The others can become almost indistinguishable, leaving room for an upset.

A recent Fox News poll showed Blankenship in third place in a fluid race, with many voters still undecided. Republicans in Washington have taken no chances, fearful that a victory by Blankenship could doom their chances to claim an eminently winnable seat. A super PAC linked to the party establishment has attacked Blankenship as a “convicted criminal” and a hypocrite.

Blankenship has held up his own deeply checkered background — and the establishment forces arrayed against him — as evidence that he is even “Trumpier than Trump.”


— A Vicious GOP Primary Could Help a Democrat.

Sen. Joe Donnelly, an endangered Democrat in a solidly red state, has surely enjoyed this Republican primary.

Political reporters have exhausted their quota of boxing metaphors — “bruising,” “bloody,” full of debate-night “jabs” — to describe a three-way Republican campaign (no, a fifteen-round brawl) that includes two congressmen, Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, and a business executive named Mike Braun.

They are not getting along royally. And there is at least some fear among Republican strategists that the wounds will not heal fully by November.

Messer and Rokita have been rivals since college, rising in state politics on parallel tracks. Rokita’s campaign has labeled Messer a “Never Trump lobbyist.” Messer has accused Rokita of “trying to make things up,” insisting he has never wavered in his support for the president.

Braun, pitching himself as the Trump-like businessman in the bunch, has dismissed his rivals as professional politicians — lawyers who “never practiced.”

The result, for several weeks now, has often been a free ride for Donnelly, who certainly should be vulnerable, given the state’s electoral drift. President Barack Obama won the state in 2008, but lost by double digits in 2012. Trump won Indiana by 19 points.


— Trump’s Blessing Comes With Risks in This Race.

In this state, at least, Trump has cleared up the matter of which candidate gets to credibly trade on his name. That would be Rep. Jim Renacci, a wealthy auto dealer whose campaign the president blessed in April. “I need Jim very badly to help our agenda,” Trump tweeted.

Renacci’s chief competition in the Republican primary is Mike Gibbons, a Cleveland-area businessman. But while Trump carried the state by 8 points in 2016, Ohio is regarded as far more of a bellwether than West Virginia or Indiana — a state where a full embrace of Trump carries at least some risk in a general election.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Democrat seeking re-election, is the only member of his party holding high office in the state. A longtime critic of pacts like the North American Free Trade Agreement, Brown has negotiated the state’s recent rightward tilt, in part, with an appreciation for Trump’s instincts on trade.

But he has been far less inclined than Manchin or Donnelly, the Democratic incumbents in West Virginia and Ohio, to side with the president on key personnel selections, like Justice Neil Gorsuch or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, prompting Republican attacks that Brown is in league with his party’s most obstructionist wing.

— A Race for Governor With Close Primaries

Ohio’s most-watched contest on Tuesday is elsewhere on the ballot. The state’s governor, John Kasich, a Republican, is term-limited. And both parties have seen competitive, rollicking primaries to succeed him.

On the Democratic side, it’s Richard Cordray — a former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau with the endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — against Dennis Kucinich, the eccentric septuagenarian former “boy mayor” of Cleveland, who later became a congressman and presidential candidate. The party establishment has lined up behind Cordray, though several allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are with Kucinich.

For Republicans, the favorite is Mike DeWine, the state’s attorney general, but he has faced a formidable challenge from Mary Taylor, the lieutenant governor. Despite her current office, Taylor has taken care not to associate too closely with Kasich, whose criticisms of Trump have made him largely toxic in a Republican primary.