Voters in Ohio, North Carolina and Indiana also pick nominees for federal and state offices Tuesday. GOP leaders fear a Don Blankenship win will cost them a shot at West Virginia seat.
Republican leaders nervously eyed voting in West Virginia on Tuesday as a divisive former coal baron whose support has surged in recent days sought the party’s Senate nomination.
The candidate, Don Blankenship, was convicted of mine safety violations and has launchedracially charged attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) family. His rise marks Republicans’ latest problem with polarizing candidates who will make it harder for them to retain their narrow Senate majority in November’s elections.
In West Virginia, as well as Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina, voters went to the polls to pick nominees for federal and state offices. The primaries kicked off a busy month of roughly a dozen contests that will establish congressional match-ups for November and shape expectations as the parties battle for control of the House and Senate.
The GOP once again found itself in a difficult position given the anti-establishment fervor within its base. In West Virginia, which has the contest on Tuesday that has caused the most concern among party leaders, the question was whether the establishment would manage to reign in that rebellious spirit — or be consumed by it.
President Trump had urged voters on Monday not to pick Blankenship as their nominee, and GOP leaders have started considering cutting ties with him if he wins, according to two Republicans who spoke about private deliberations on the condition of anonymity. Republicans are worried that Blankenship’s baggage could drag down their other Senate contenders around the country.
Indiana is choosing a Republican Senate nominee. There, the ascendant candidate is Mike Braun, the founder of a warehouse and distribution company who voted in the 2012 Democratic primary.
Like Blankenship, he is running against two more well-established GOP incumbents — Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer — who have spent much of the campaign attacking each other, as they calculated the outsider would face a traditional ceiling of support.
Indiana and West Virginia are two of the Republican Party’s best pickup opportunities in the battle for the Senate in November. Democratic Sens. Joe Donnelly (Ind.) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) are running for reelection in states that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
Republicans fear that if Blankenship wins the nomination, their chances of defeating Manchin will be dashed. And some are prepared to disavow him like they did with Roy Moore in Alabama last year, after The Washington Post reported on accusations that the Republican Senate contender had inappropriate sexual contact with teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
“To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference,” he tweeted. “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State…No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!”
A Blankenship victory would also test Republicans’ ability to stay unified in the general election. Trump campaigned for Moore last year, even after Senate GOP leaders cut ties with him.
“We’re starting to think through the various scenarios,” said Sen. John Thune (S.D.), the third-ranking Republican senator, speaking of West Virginia.
Asked what happens if Blankenship wins, Thune said, “I don’t know. But let’s just hope and pray that that doesn’t happen.”
A closely watched Democratic gubernatorial primary is playing out in Ohio, where former congressman Dennis Kucinich is running against Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Polls suggest a Cordray win.
Also in Ohio, Republicans have grown increasingly concerned about the primary for the open House seat outside Columbus, which was vacated by a moderate Republican who left for the private sector. It has turned into a proxy war between the House Freedom Caucus, which backs business executive Melanie Leneghan, and the moderate Main Street Partnership, which backs state Sen. Troy Balderson.
In West Virginia, Blankenship has called McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” in campaign ads, a reference to a drug-smuggling bust on a ship owned by his father-in-law’s family, and attacked the “China family” of the Kentucky Republican’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. He has also used the words “Negro” and “China people,” while also arguing that he was not making racially motivated appeals.
Blankenship, who has called himself “Trumpier than Trump,” spent a year in jail after the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers.
“Tomorrow, West Virginia will send the swamp a message — no one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote,” Blankenship responded to Trump’s tweet.
McConnell, who prides himself on being unruffled by crises, has been making light of the Blankenship predicament in private. With a few friends, according to two people, he has begun answering his phone, “Cocaine Mitch.” Continue