Tuesday marked the first big, multistate primary night of the 2018 election cycle, with a flurry of competitive races — including several fought over President TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE and the Republican establishment — coming to their conclusions. Here are five takeaways from the elections in West Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio.
Congressmen shown the door
GOP primaries can be challenges for lawmakers who need to point to successful records in Congress while not offending their constituents’ anti-Washington sentiments.
On Tuesday night, four incumbent members of Congress — including three looking for a promotion to the Senate — fell short against outsider foes. Now they’re headed for an earlier-than-planned retirement.
In Indiana, Reps. Todd RokitaTheodore (Todd) Edward RokitaBottom Line Lobbying world Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE and Luke MesserAllen (Luke) Lucas MesserK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Yoder, Messer land on K Street House GOP to force members to give up leadership positions if running for higher office MORE spent most of the Indiana Senate primary attacking each other as each looked to position himself as the most loyal Trump supporter in the race. But that feuding left a space for businessman Mike Braun to pitch himself as an alternative to the warring congressmen. Braun ultimately stormed to a comfortable 11-point margin of victory, as Rokita and Messer virtually split the rest of the vote.
Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsWest Virginia New Members 2019 Republican Carol Miller holds off Democrat in West Virginia House race Trump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report MORE (R-W.Va.) lost West Virginia’s crowded primary, finishing second to Attorney General Patrick Morrisey but ahead of former coal baron and ex-convict Don Blankenship. Both of Jenkins’s top primary foes looked to use his time in Congress against him in the race. Jenkins was also pulled down by a Democratic super PAC, which spent millions attacking his work with the state medical association.
And North Carolina GOP Rep. Robert PittengerRobert Miller PittengerBottom Line North Carolina reporter says there could be ‘new crop’ of GOP candidates in 9th Congressional District race North Carolina board calls for new election in contested House race MORE became the first incumbent House member to lose a primary this cycle when Pastor Mark Harris knocked him off. Harris had nearly taken Pittenger out of the seat two years earlier, when he lost to the incumbent by less than 200 votes.
Tuesday’s primaries weren’t all bad news for incumbents — Rep. Jim RenacciJames (Jim) B. RenacciOhio is suddenly a 2020 battleground Democrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Medicare for All won’t deliver what Democrats promise MORE (R-Ohio) won the primary for Ohio’s Senate race, while Rep. Walter JonesWalter Beaman JonesExperts warn Georgia’s new electronic voting machines vulnerable to potential intrusions, malfunctions Georgia restores 22,000 voter registrations after purge Stacey Abrams group files emergency motion to stop Georgia voting roll purge MORE (R-N.C.) once again survived a tough challenge.
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Attacking McConnell has its limits
Blankenship sought to close the gap in West Virginia by attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.), a frequent target for the GOP grass roots. At the same time, McConnell and other Republican leaders feared Blankenship’s conviction — which came after an explosion at a coal mine Blankenship’s company ran killed 29 — would sink the party’s chances in November against Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump administration seeks to use global aid for nuclear projects Shelley Moore Capito wins Senate primary West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice wins GOP gubernatorial primary MORE (D-W.Va.)
Blankenship pejoratively referred to McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch” — an obscure reference to a package of cocaine found on a ship owned by McConnell’s father-in-law. Blankenship also targeted McConnell’s family in racial terms, calling the father of Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoTrump campaign launches Asian Pacific Americans coalition Bottom line Democrats to probe Trump’s replacement of top Transportation Dept. watchdog MORE, McConnell’s Chinese-American wife, a “Chinaperson.”
As those comments dominated the news, Blankenship sought to portray the race as a fight between himself and McConnell. The former coal executive banked on conservative frustration with McConnell to boost his campaign, while a super PAC with ties to Washington Republicans slammed Blankenship with negative ads.
But when the dust settled, Blankenship fell flat, prompting the downtrodden candidate to openly ponder whether attacking McConnell had hurt his chances.
Blankenship’s defeat is good news for Republicans who saw him as a sure-fire loser in November. But it’s also a boon for McConnell and his allies, as McConnell emerged as the victor in his scrap with the GOP candidate.
Trump avoids another primary defeat
President Trump loves to win, so Tuesday’s result resonated in the White House for more ways than one.
With Republicans scrambling in the final days of the West Virginia race to block Blankenship, they convinced Trump to put his own reputation on the line by directing his supporters to vote against the former coal executive.
Trump has had a mixed record when endorsing a high-profile candidate for office. He backed successful GOP special House election candidates in 2017, fundraising for Georgia’s Karen HandelKaren Christine HandelJon Ossoff to challenge David Perdue after winning Georgia Democratic primary The Hill’s Campaign Report: Bad polling data is piling up for Trump Ossoff within reach of Democratic Senate nomination in Georgia, but counting continues MORE, recording a robocall for Montana’s Greg GianforteGregory Richard GianforteKathleen Williams, Matt Rosendale to face off for Montana House seat Gianforte wins Montana gubernatorial primary Key races to watch in Tuesday’s primaries MORE and tweeting about Kansas’s Ron EstesRonald (Ron) Gene EstesHouse GOP lawmakers urge Senate to confirm Vought Electric Avenue: The Democrats’ crusade to rob from the poor to build electric cars for the rich Pompeo expected to visit Kansas on Thursday MORE and South Carolina’s Ralph NormanRalph Warren NormanHouse GOP urge Trump against supporting additional funding for state and local governments House GOP lawmakers urge Senate to confirm Vought Top conservatives pen letter to Trump with concerns on fourth coronavirus relief bill MORE.
But Trump’s candidates haven’t always done well. The Republican pick in the Virginia’s governor race faltered, despite a Trump endorsement. And Trump’s backing failed to put Republicans ahead in the Alabama Senate race or a Pennsylvania special House election — even though the races were held in solidly pro-Trump areas.
A Blankenship victory would have raised more questions about Trump’s ability to motivate the party base. But instead, Trump was on the winning side.
Trump loyalty isn’t always enough for candidates
Trump still enjoys an overwhelming favorable rating among Republican primary electorates, but many candidates who sought to make Trump the central focus of their campaign fell flat.
In the Indiana Senate race, Rokita went to great lengths to frame himself as Trump’s most loyal backer, donning a “Make America Great Again” hat in a campaign ad and calling himself “pro-Trump.”
That prompted Messer to try to position himself as the most pro-Trump candidate, organizing a petition to nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Trump also became the central messaging point in West Virginia, with Jenkins attempting to spin Trump’s tweet criticizing Blankenship as an endorsement of his campaign.
In North Carolina’s two biggest Republican primaries over House seats, both candidates who staked their reelection solely on Trump faltered.
Pittenger lost his reelection bid, despite framing support for Trump as an imperative and touting a voting record that showed him supporting Trump 97 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. When Harris attacked Pittenger for backing a congressional spending bill Harris deemed not conservative enough, the congressman argued that he only voted “yes” because Trump wanted the measure passed.
Jones, whose independent streak has defined much of his career, triumphed over an opponent who criticized his votes against tax reform and the latest ObamaCare repeal plan as votes against the president.
Trump still remains hugely popular with Republicans, but Tuesday’s results suggest that loyalty to Trump won’t be enough to guarantee voters’ support — especially in tough primary fights.
Party establishments get their picks in crucial special election
They might not have grabbed the headlines, but Tuesday’s special election primaries for Ohio’s 12th Congressional District set up the race to be a slugfest.
Democrats have outperformed this cycle in wealthy, well-educated areas, even in red-leaning districts. So with the district left open by the retirement of Rep. Pat TiberiPatrick (Pat) Joseph TiberiOhio New Members 2019 Many authors of GOP tax law will not be returning to Congress GOP Rep. Balderson holds onto seat in Ohio MORE (R) also representing the richest and best-educated electorate in Ohio, there’s a chance that Democrats can win the seat — even though Trump won the district by 11 points in 2016.
Republican state Sen. Troy Balderson squeaked through the crowded GOP primary, which turned into a clash between the establishment-backed Balderson and Liberty Township Trustee Melanie Leneghan, who was backed by influential members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Both sides poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race in the final weeks, and Balderson ultimately prevailed by just a single percentage point.
On the Democratic side, Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor, the frontrunner in the race, cruised to victory over two other candidates.
O’Connor was seen by many Democrats as the party’s best chance in a general election, and the Republican establishment fretted that Leneghan’s conservative credentials could put the district at risk. Now both sides have the candidate they wanted — just ahead of a closely watched general election race.