With Blankenship loss, Republicans look to November in three key Senate races
Posted May 8, 2018 7:00 p.m. EDT
Updated May 8, 2018 11:13 p.m. EDT
(CNN) — A night Republicans feared would end in disaster in at least one state instead produced Senate nominees that party leaders are pleased to run against three vulnerable Democratic senators in November's midterm elections.
In West Virginia, Don Blankenship -- the ex-convict and coal baron who had taken aim at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's "China family," in a reference to his wife and in-laws' heritage -- finished third behind Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who CNN has projected will win, and Rep. Evan Jenkins, the second-place finisher.
Blankenship's loss spared Republicans from painful decisions about whether to abandon their hopes of unseating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
"It didn't work out," Blankenship told reporters Tuesday night in Charleston.
McConnell's allies gloated over the loss by Blankenship, who had also called him "Cocaine Mitch" in a reference to drugs being found aboard a ship owned by the company of the father of his wife, transportation secretary Elaine Chao.
His political aides tweeted an image of McConnell surrounded by a cloud of what appeared to be cocaine dust, along with the words: "Thanks for playing, Don."
Blankenship said President Donald Trump's Monday morning tweet urging West Virginia voters to reject him in favor of either Morrisey or Jenkins played a role in his loss.
In Indiana, businessman and former state representative Mike Braun, a self-funder who spent more than $5 million to run as a Washington outsider and political novice, bested two congressmen -- Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer.
He'll take on Sen. Joe Donnelly in a state where Trump won by 19 percentage points in the fall -- and where Trump is set to visit Thursday.
And in Ohio, Rep. Jim Renacci cruised to a victory that sets up a run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in the fall.
While all three Senate nominees have vulnerabilities -- there's much to explore in Braun's business history and his votes in the state legislature, Democrats said Tuesday night -- they are all candidates the GOP can embrace.
The biggest Republican loser of the night was actually on the House side: Rep. Robert Pittenger was ousted in a primary by pastor Mark Harris in North Carolina's 9th District, which stretches southeast of Charlotte.
Pittenger conceded the race, and now Harris will face Democrat Dan McCready -- a 34-year-old Marine veteran who party strategists see as fitting the Conor Lamb mold -- in a competitive contest in November.
In Indiana, Braun's win sets up one of the nation's marquee Senate races, with Donnelly looking like the Democratic incumbent who could be in the most jeopardy.
Braun began the race as a little-known figure outside his hometown of Jasper in rural southwestern Indiana. But he spent more than $5 million of his own money on the race, allowing him to dwarf his opponents, GOP Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, in television advertising.
Rokita and Messer relentlessly attacked Braun for his history of voting in Democratic primaries in a county where the party until recently held a firm grip on local offices. And his auto parts distribution business is certain to face scrutiny, particularly because Braun has criticized other candidates for backing free trade agreements.
But the 64-year-old Braun, who appeared at debates wearing a blue button-down shirt with sleeves rolled up, successfully introduced himself to voters as having built his own business while Messer and Rokita were climbing political ladders.
Braun is an outsider compared with the two congressmen, but his campaign won praise from national Republican strategists, and the party is now poised to rally behind him against Donnelly, who is seen as perhaps the nation's most vulnerable Democratic senator in a state President Donald Trump won by 19 percentage points in 2016.
In southeastern Indiana's 6th District, meanwhile, Greg Pence -- the brother of Vice President Mike Pence -- won the primary for Messer's seat and now is the heavy favorite to win in the overwhelmingly Republican district.
In Ohio, Renacci held off self-funding businessman Mike Gibbons.
But the highest-profile races there were about replacing outgoing Gov. John Kasich.
On the Democratic side, former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Richard Cordray bested former Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Meanwhile, Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine defeated Kasich's lieutenant governor, Mary Taylor.