Morrisey Wins as GOP Gets Its Wish in W.Va., Ind., Ohio
Republicans breathed a collective sigh of relief Tuesday night as primary contests for the U.S. Senate produced a trio of candidates they consider effective challengers to Democratic incumbents in states President Trump won in 2016.
The races in West Virginia, Indiana and Ohio were the first in what will be a months-long string of crowded primaries for Republicans in key battleground states, lasting until Wisconsin and Arizona vote in August. While the GOP was pleased with Tuesday’s results, Democrats believe that the divisive primaries left the respective victors wounded, giving their party’s incumbents an edge heading into the general elections.
The biggest victory for Republicans came in West Virginia, where Don Blankenship, a former coal baron who recently served a prison sentence related to a mining disaster that killed 29 people, finished a distant third. The national party spent more than $1.3 million in recent weeks hoping to sink his campaign, and Trump intervened in the final hours to urge voters against supporting Blankenship. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey ultimately won, and will take on Sen. Joe Manchin in the fall.
In Indiana, businessman and former state legislator Mike Braun defeated Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer to face Sen. Joe Donnelly, whom many Republicans view as their best target on the 2018 map. And in Ohio, Rep. Jim Renacci won his race to take on Sen. Sherrod Brown.
All three nominees have endeared themselves to Trump, aiming to capitalize on his presidential achievements in order coalesce the base and overcome Democrats with strong individual brands that have contributed to their past successes.
In West Virginia, Morrisey ran as a conservative fighter, pointing to his work as attorney general resisting Obama administration policies and arguing he was the only candidate with a truly conservative record. His most consistent attack against Rep. Evan Jenkins, the second-place finisher, was spotlighting the congressman’s past as a Democrat (he switched parties in 2013). Morrisey also had endorsements from Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Mike Lee, a conservative trio that has often parted ways with GOP leadership.
Most of the race was a nasty battle between Morrisey and Jenkins, who ignored Blankenship almost entirely until the final days of the campaign. A Democratic outside group spent nearly $2 million going after Jenkins and Morrisey, though the vast majority was spent attacking the congressman, who argued the expenditure showed he was the best choice to take on Manchin.
In his acceptance speech, Morrisey positioned himself as an ally of the president and attacked Manchin as having rejected Trump, tying his opponent to Democratic leader Chuck Schumer.
“Joe Manchin has become just another rubber stamp for the liberal Washington elite agenda,” he said. “Joe Manchin went to Washington, promised to drain the swamp. Unfortunately, after eight years he’s become part of the swamp.”
Still, Democrats believe the incumbent’s brand in West Virginia is strong enough to withstand the likely assault from Trump and other Republicans, who are likely to make Manchin one of their top targets this November. And as in other races, they hope the attacks that filtered out through the primary, such as Morrisey’s New Jersey background and his experience as a Washington lobbyist, will hurt him in the general election.
In Indiana, the race became a test not only of who was the biggest Trump supporter, but also of what style Trump supporter voters found appealing. Messer ran as a reliable supporter of the president’s agenda on Capitol Hill and Rokita as a hard-charging Trump defender. Braun ran as a businessman who best matched Trump’s life experience and outsider status.
Braun also shook up the race early, airing his first TV ad in November, months before Messer or Rokita hit the airwaves. Braun ultimately loaned more than $5.4 million to the campaign, nearly the combined total that both Messer and Rokita raised. According to a tally from the Indianapolis Star, Braun spent more on TV ads than Messer and Rokita combined.
Braun’s early ads focused on his background as a businessman. But in late March, he released videos of himself carrying cardboard cutouts of Rokita and Messer, asking Indiana voters on the street to tell the difference between them. He followed with an ad showing them as bickering children, and another labeling them the “swamp brothers.”
Messer and Rokita each won most of the counties in their respective congressional districts, but Braun ran ahead nearly everywhere else in the state. The two congressmen ended the night within a few thousand votes of each other.
“It was easy to paint them with the same brush and be different,” one veteran GOP strategist said of Braun’s campaign message.
In his victory speech, the nominee immediately went to work trying to unite the party behind him. He’ll have some help in the effort: Trump plans to hold a campaign rally in Indiana Thursday.
“I hope they will join me just like I would with them,” Braun said of his competitors. “Our common goal all along was to retire Joe Donnelly.
Democrats have long hoped the nastiness of the GOP primary in the Hoosier State will help lift Donnelly in the fall. A digital ad from outside group American Bridge being released on social media platforms Wednesday meshes together attacks from his primary foes, including Messer saying, “Mike Braun is just willing to say anything to get elected.”
Braun will aim to capitalize on his position as a Washington outsider in the general election. Donnelly has faced criticisms from Republicans for having owned stock in a family company that relies on Mexican labor while railing against outsourcing; Republicans have dubbed him “Mexico Joe.”
But Democrats believe Braun’s record will nullify those charges. The Associated Press reported ways in which his own business practices did not line up with his campaign rhetoric. The review found Braun had imported goods from countries he had criticized for taking American jobs, accepted government subsidies, and was on the receiving end of worker complaints.
Donnelly is considered among the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election this year, and has the added challenge of representing a state that is also home to Vice President Mike Pence and that Trump won by 19 percentage points. But Democrats in the state believe Donnelly’s “average Joe” brand resonates with voters in Indiana, where he will need to build a coalition of Republicans and independents as well as Democrats. Of all the Senate Democrats running in Trump states, Donnelly has voted most closely with the president, reflecting the balance he will have to strike in order to win.
Renacci, the winner of the Ohio Senate campaign, benefited from a comparatively lower profile primary campaign. Businessman Mike Gibbons, his top challenger, loaned just over $1.5 million to his campaign, much less than wealthy self-funders in other states. Renacci, who left the crowded Ohio gubernatorial race to switch to the Senate campaign at the behest of Trump, also benefited from the president’s support.
Trump endorsed Renacci two weeks before the primary, and the president’s re-election campaign doubled down with an endorsement last week. Renacci sat next to Trump during the president’s official visit to the state the weekend before the primary, and Trump cut a robo-call for the congressman ahead of voting Tuesday.
Renacci won 47 percent of the vote, but he faces a stiff test against Sen. Sherrod Brown, the best-funded incumbent Democrat in the country with nearly $12 million in the bank. Trump’s eight-point victory in Ohio in 2016 could make it fertile ground for Republicans in 2018, but Brown’s fundraising prowess and personal, populist brand in the state sets him apart from other Democrats running for re-election in states Trump won.
In a memo released by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee before Tuesday’s results were in, the committee highlighted the opposition research against each of the candidates, and argued the victors would emerge from the primaries lacking resources against well-funded Democratic incumbents. American Bridge, the outside group, plans to launch digital ads Wednesday in each of the three states attacking the newly minted nominees.
“There are no winners from tonight’s GOP primary battles – only weakened candidates who are limping into the general election,” the DSCC memo said. “These intra-party battles have drained resources, exposed the flaws in their nominee, and driven their campaigns out of step with the general electorate.”