Political News

Tonight's primaries could prove the Trump takeover of the GOP is totally complete

Posted May 8, 2018 11:20 a.m. EDT

— Today marks the first major primary day of the 2018 elections, with four states -- North Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia and Ohio -- voting. There are no two people who love elections more than me and CNN resident big brain Harry Enten.

So we spent this morning exchanging emails about Don Blankenship, the vagaries of public polling, why Harry thinks West Virginia is a fascinating state and why today might tell us just how much the GOP is Donald Trump's party now.

Our conversation -- raw and uncut! -- is below.

Cillizza: Happy Primary Day!

I love these days. Democracy in action! Voters voting!

There are four states -- West Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana and Ohio -- with primaries today. My favorite part about that quartet is the latest that polls close in any of the four is 7:30 pm ET. (I need my beauty sleep to maintain my good looks, OK?)

I want to start in West Virginia. And with the only question anyone cares about: Can ex-con/racist/coal mine owner Don Blankenship actually win?

My answer: Yes. In fact I think he is a slight favorite over Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Blankenship has outspent the other two on TV -- being a coal mine owner is a lucrative gig -- and is the most "outsider" of the three candidates.

Enten: Primaries can be the most fun for junkies like ourselves, especially when we don't have to stay up until 11 p.m. for the polls to close like we did in Arizona! Primaries can be the most unpredictable because the polls aren't anywhere near as predictive in them (more on that in a second). They're also tantamount to winning the general election in a lot of places because the places are either so Democratic or Republican.

Anyway, I think Blankenship can definitely win. So we're in agreement there. Let me take a somewhat nerdier perspective.

The public polling has been, to put it mildly, sparse. The only public poll not sponsored by anyone (a Fox News poll) did have Blankenship behind, but that polls was done a few weeks ago and Blankenship was just nine points behind the leader in that poll (Morrisey). I say "just" because I'd put a 95% confidence interval around that of +/- 23 points based upon prior primary polling accuracy at that stage before the election. Given all the attention Blankenship has received in the lead-up, it wouldn't surprise me if he won. (Though it wouldn't surprise me if he lost either. We just don't have enough data to go off.)

As for the general election, I think he'd have a chance, but I think it definitely decreases the chance of a GOP takeover. I have some perhaps surprising thoughts about why that is ...

Cillizza: The obvious answer is that he:

a) has used phrases like "Chinaperson" and "negro" during the closing weeks of the campaign;

b) is likely to be disowned by the GOP establishment in Washington including "Cocaine Mitch";

c) Spent 2016 in jail for his role in the explosion of the Upper Big Branch mine that left 29 people dead.

I'd be interested in knowing your less obvious ones ;)

Then I want to talk about the other primary that matters today: The Indiana Republican Senate race.

Enten: So to me, West Virginia is a fascinating state politically. Yes, it voted for Trump by over 40 points, but Democrats still have a voter registration edge (dating back to when they were far more successful in the state). They're also far closer in party identification (which is different from party registration) than you might expect given Trump's success. I've run some boring statistical regressions and those types of things matter. Voters are complex and that they don't necessarily just vote a certain way given their views of the president.

West Virginia is the type of place that will vote for populists. Maybe you consider Blankenship a populist? But here's what I see: I see a businessman. I see someone who has lived in a castle.(Seriously, it's pretty much a castle.)

The way I think you win in West Virginia if you're a Republican is to win over people in the south where Democrats have their largest registration advantage, but where Trump won his largest victory in the state. That's where Evan Jenkins is from, and why he'd arguably be the strongest general election candidate.

Given how popular Trump still is in West Virginia, Blankenship could still win. Given how Manchin has already beaten a businessman for Senate twice, I'm skeptical.

Cillizza: We agree. Jenkins is the strongest GOP candidate -- which is why a Democratic super PAC has been bludgeoning him with ads over the past six weeks or so. And Blankenship is the most likely to create problems for a Republican Party which, if the presidential result is any indication, should control this seat after 2018.

Indiana isn't getting as much attention as West Virginia -- no Blankenship-like character in the Hoosier State -- but the primary matters just as much. CW going into this last week was that neither of the two members of Congress -- Todd Rokita and Luke Messer -- would win. The guy who looked like the winner was Mike Braun, a former state representative who has dropped more than $5 million of his own money into the race. The one knock on Braun: he used to be a Democrat until 2012.

There's one poll -- literally ONE -- in this race and it's from a month ago. But, it does show Braun with a 10-point lead.

We're flying sort of blind here but what we do know is that whoever wins has a decent shot at being a senator. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) won the 2012 race thanks to Richard Mourdock's campaign implosion. Assuming that doesn't repeat itself in November, this is a state that Trump won by double digits in 2016.

I'll take Braun to win. What say you?

Enten: Indiana gets no respect. No respect at all!

What is with former Democrats running as Republicans? We got one in the White House. We got one in West Virginia. Now, we got one in Indiana. Almost as if the parties are changing a little bit.

Again, I think we're in general agreement here with Braun. That's been the general belief of the political class over the last month, and that one poll backs it up. It helps to be the local businessman when the two opponents are from dreaded Washington. But the uncertainty level is through the roof. I just cannot understate how uncertain the outcomes are in primaries. I'll note that there have been last second charges against Braun as well that he's an outsourcer. I don't know if that means much.

I will say the general election could be interesting. You speak to Republicans and they think they got a real good shot at beating Donnelly, and, given how he was elected and the state's Republican tradition, it's hard to disagree. Then again, that one poll that didn't test Braun vs. Donnelly did show Donnelly doing pretty well against Messer and Rokita.

I do think that Indiana and West Virginia look to potentially confirm something about the Republican Party in general, though.

Cillizza: And that thing is.....

Let me guess: That it is now a totally out-of-Washington party that wants to elect people who not only haven't been in Washington but who actively hate it.

If Blankenship and Braun win, I think it will be hard to conclude anything else. Two rich guys running as outsiders to the political process -- just like a bouffant-ed someone we know who calls 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home right now.

Did I guess right?

Enten: Yes, I think you're on the button. Now, one or two primaries don't prove anything. But, I'm struck by how much Republicans running for office continue to run like it's 2014 or something.

It's not just that they're outsider businessmen (though Braun was a state representative). It's also the messaging. It's we're going to clean up the swamp. It's the whole thing of still running against Hillary Clinton. What even is that? Since when can you run against someone who hasn't been in government in half a decade and hasn't won any office in a dozen years? It's bizarre.

I guess the idea is that since change almost always seems to be a popular message, then why not try and run on it when you're still in power?!

History suggests that probably won't work, but that's why history is history. We'll have to see if what Republicans are doing now works in this year. Aren't elections fun?