In West Virginia, one Republican primary candidate has waged an all-out racist assault against the Senate leader of his own party. In Indiana, another Republican candidate has tied himself so closely to the president that he is promising to help end the special counsel’s probe. And in Ohio, an insurgent Republican threatens to let the party lose another special election in a year where the Democratic Party base is at its most energized.
Tuesday’s primary votes in those contests, pitting more mainstream candidates against more radical ones, could well determine whether Republicans can hold their majorities in the House and Senate in November.
The Senate primaries in Indiana and West Virginia have particularly high stakes for the GOP, presently holding on to a slim 51-49 majority. With other seats in danger, the party is hopeful the right challenger could knock off Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN), a moderate in his caucus, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in a state where Trump remains very popular.
In both states, a businessman who’s emphasized his alignment with President Trump is trying to defeat sitting members of the House.
In West Virginia, that businessman is former coal executive Don Blankenship, who served time in prison for willfully violating mine safety and health standards after a 2010 mine explosion that resulted in the deaths of 29 people.
Many mainstream Republicans see Blankenship as another candidate in the mold of Judge Roy Moore, who wowed primary voters only to lose an eminently winnable Senate race in Alabama last year.
Like Moore, Blankenship is running against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the mainstream media and, in terms reminiscent of the president himself, the Justice Department. Blankenship’s latest batch of advertisements have taken a turn toward the absurd, with blank stares into the camera and attacks on McConnell’s “China family.”
While political pros have mocked the ads, Blankenship’s incendiary approach has earned him more press attention, if much of it negative, than his opponents Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
“Hard to expect the media to avert its eyes from the Blankenship circus, particularly in a click-driven environment, but I think there is a real tail risk,” Republican strategist Liam Donovan observed. “Dominating the conversation for negative reasons is still dominating the conversation, and with just days to go that really matters. It would be naive to think that wasn’t his goal in releasing this ridiculous ad.”
Most recent public polls show Blankenship in third place, as two PACs with undisclosed donors have aimed negative ads at him. Yet there’s enough concern he could win the race that the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., has pleaded with voters in recent days to reject his candidacy.
“No more fumbles like Alabama,” he tweeted. “We need to win in November.”
In a state where almost 70 percent of voters backed Donald Trump in 2016, Blankenship’s anti-D.C. messaging may be resonating.
“I think he’s really good at capturing media attention much the same way that President Trump was and still is,” Dr. Patrick Hickey, a political science professor at West Virginia University, told The Daily Beast. But that may not translate on the ground as Blankenship’s reputation and history precede him.
“A lot of people think this rich guy sort of killed these miners out of greed,” Hickey said.
In Indiana, another brutal primary is pitting Trump acolytes against each other. Rep. Luke Messer has nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize ahead of the president’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Meanwhile, Rep. Todd Rokita, recently ran an ad promising to end special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation if elected to the Senate: “Mueller, Pelosi, Donnelly. They’re using fake news to destroy our president. Who’s tough enough to stop the witch hunt?” Both are up against former state lawmaker Mike Braun, who’s offering himself as the consummate outsider in the vein of Trump, using his own money to finance the race and running ads with cardboard cut-outs of his opponents in which he asks voters if they can tell the difference between the two.
Operatives watching the race think that Braun could mount a strong challenge against Donnelly but his background as an owner of a national auto parts distribution company bears some risk with the potential for more stories about his business record to emerge.
And some Republicans have been dismayed at the pattern emerging in primaries across the nation where candidates are mimicking Trump and hoping for the same results.
“I watched this happen in 2009-2010 when candidates came out of the woodwork trying to be Sarah Palin,” Matt Borges, former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, told The Daily Beast, describing the climate more broadly. “It didn’t work. There were no mini Palins. It’s better for candidates to be themselves and try to build their own brand, instead of trying to pretend they’re something they’re not and, in many cases, have a record showing that they’ve never been.”
Borges, and other Republicans in his state, have been watching another Tuesday contest closer to home with bated breath.
Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-OH) announced his retirement last year, setting the stage for an August special election in Ohio’s 12th Congressional District, which encompasses areas to the north and east of Columbus. The race has been deemed a toss-up by the Cook Political Report, despite the fact that Tiberi has easily held on to his seat since 2002. But Republicans, and Democrats for that matter, have not quickly forgotten Rep. Conor Lamb’s (D-PA) upset in a gerrymandered heavily pro-Trump district or Democrat Hiral Tipirneni’s close race in a deep-red Arizona district last month.
Of the GOP candidates competing on Tuesday in the district’s primary, all the attention has been on state Sen. Troy Balderson, backed by Tiberi himself, and Melanie Leneghan, a conservative businesswoman who some view as potentially liable to lose the seat by alienating more moderate voters in the district.
“We don’t want to see another PA-18, and she’s the candidate that would make that more likely here,” Borges told The Daily Beast. “The Republican will be favored to win either way, but I know for a fact the Democrats are rooting for her in this primary.”
As Tiberi has invested heavily to boost Balderson, Leneghan has the backing of the House Freedom Caucus co-founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and the Club for Growth’s PAC has spent money on ads going after Balderson.
“You’ve got to turn out the grassroots, if you’re going to win a special,” Jordan told Politico in a recent article. “So she’s the best one equipped to do that. She’s the best equipped to win the general.”
But that is not how Borges and other Republican moderates in Ohio are viewing the race, as they are actively concerned that if the wrong person advances in the Tuesday contest, money might stop flowing in.
“I worry about donors throwing up their hands in OH-12 if Tuesday goes the wrong way,” Borges told The Daily Beast. “But we’ll just have to see what happens.”