Tuesday night could have theoretically gone better for Mitch McConnell, but not by much. Voters selected Republican Senate nominees in three states that were won overwhelmingly by Donald Trump in 2016, and instead of picking wacky outsiders who could torpedo the party’s chances in November, the rank and file opted for nominees who should be able to capably carry the torch for the next six months. All three nominees will keep Republicans’ hopes of keeping control of the Senate next year alive and well.
In Indiana, primary voters chose Mike Braun, a wealthy businessman who, while a bit of an unknown, has the cash to help bankroll a general election campaign and has already pledged his allegiance to the GOP establishment by way of the president. In Ohio, voters opted for Rep. Jim Renacci, a congressman who McConnell had already endorsed. And in West Virginia, they picked state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey—who, most importantly to McConnell, Donald Trump, and pretty much every other Republican in Washington, is not Don Blankenship, a coal baron fresh off a stint in prison for his role in a catastrophic mine disaster that killed 29 miners in the state.
None of the GOP nominees is perfect. Braun, a former state lawmaker, will need to recover from a primary in which his rivals hit him for his past votes in Democratic primaries, and his 2017 vote in the state Legislature to raise Indiana fuel taxes. Renacci is a soft-spoken former lobbyist who Republicans turned to after they couldn’t recruit someone better. Morrisey was actually the second choice of national Republicans, and somewhat awkwardly, has declined to say he’d support the GOP leader.
But that was a relatively minor affront compared with Blankenship’s all-out anti-Mitch broadsides. Blankenship spent the past week calling McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” and launching ethno-nationalistic broadsides against his Asian-American wife’s family—attacks that were then played on a near-constant loop on cable news. Those attacks appeared, for a weekend at least, to coincide with a Blankenship surge in internal GOP polls, and a victory would have meant McConnell was in even worse shape with the base than anyone realized. But Blankenship fizzled, collecting a relatively harmless 20 percent of the vote. McConnell was so happy with the outcome that his office taunted Blankenship by tweeting out a Photoshopped image from Narcos, a fictionalized TV show about drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, that showed McConnell surrounded by cocaine.
McConnell and co. were convinced, not unreasonably, that if Blankenship had become their nominee in West Virginia, he would have spoiled their chances of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin this fall in a state Trump won by more than 40 percentage points two years ago. Instead of coasting to another term, Manchin will now face Morrisey, who will try to sell his own outsider appeal in a state that loves outsiders.
The stakes weren’t quite as personal or dramatic in Ohio and Indiana on Tuesday, but the Senate majority leader will still be happy with the results there. In Ohio, Renacci coasted to victory over a first-time candidate who would have been a clear underdog against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has been winning elections in the state since the 1970s. And in Indiana, Braun won the nomination over two congressmen who were wounded badly in what proved to be a particularly nasty primary.
In order to keep control of the Senate next year, Republicans will need to limit their net loss this November to a single seat. That sounds like a big lift, particularly when you consider the president’s dismal approval ratings and historical headwinds blowing against them. But Republicans are defending just nine seats this fall, three of which are considered about as safe as they can get and another three of which aren’t yet seen as competitive.
Democrats, meanwhile, won’t just need to flip two GOP seats; they also need to protect the 26 seats they have that are also up in the midterms. Ten of those are in states Trump won in 2016, half of which are toss-ups, including West Virginia and Indiana. The big concern for Republicans was that they would blow it, like they did in 2010 and 2012, by nominating candidates too far outside the mainstream. Compared to some of those candidates, McConnell couldn’t have reasonably asked for a better outcome on Tuesday. Perhaps the party faithful, with some nudging from Trump, is finally learning its lesson.