What to Watch in Tuesday’s Primaries

Don Blankenship, Todd Rokita.
Don Blankenship in West Virginia and Todd Rokita in Indiana are among the Republicans in the running Tuesday. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images.

The battle for control of the U.S. Senate gets underway in earnest on Tuesday, as Republicans pick their nominees in three states that Donald Trump won handily in 2016. GOP voters in Indiana, Ohio, and West Virginia will decide how establishment-friendly or outsider-y they want to go with their nominees—less than two years after the ultimate Republican outsider took over the conservative establishment. Now, the outsider president is trying to draw an inside straight, as he backs members of the Republican Congress that he’s bashed in recent months. In North Carolina, the stakes are a little lower—voters there will pick their congressional nominees in a year without any statewide races atop the ballot.

Here’s what to watch on Tuesday:

West Virginia Senate

This contest boils down to the Trump-led Republican establishment versus Don Blankenship, an ex-con with a persecution complex, who’s declared himself, not unreasonably, “Trumpier than Trump.” After some confusing nativist attacks on Mitch McConnell, Blankenship appeared to be surging in weekend polls, despite—or perhaps, because of—the GOP’s escalating efforts to derail his campaign.

The president and his party believe that Blankenship, who spent time in prison for his role in a deadly 2010 mine disaster, is unelectable in a general election against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who otherwise should be beatable in a state Trump won by more than 40 points two years ago. But it’s not clear Republican primary voters feel the same way. Blankenship has spent more than twice as much as his two establishment-friendly rivals—Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey—have combined. Recent internal polling gave Blankenship a slight edge in a tight three-way race, which set off alarm bells in Washington and convinced the president to go beyond passive-aggressive snubs to attack Blankenship directly on Monday.

Trump and co. have tried to scare GOP voters straight by reminding them that Roy Moore lost what should have been a gimme of a special election in Alabama last year. But the Republican establishment has been unwilling or unable to pick a clear favorite in the race, and Blankenship’s two main rivals have battered each other for months. That creates the possibility that Jenkins and Morrisey will split the not-explicitly-xenophobic vote and allow Blankenship to snag the nomination with a plurality of support. That would be a nightmare for Mitch McConnell—or “Cocaine Mitch,” as Blankenship has called him—who would then be looking at six more months of Blankenship’s outlandish attacks on the Senate majority leader and his “China family.” A Blankenship victory would be a dream for Manchin and Democrats, who could then focus their time and money elsewhere this summer.

Indiana Senate

In Indiana, another outsider businessman is hoping to fly past a couple of establishment rivals.  Former state lawmaker Mike Braun came out of nowhere to surprise U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita in the race to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in November. Donnelly got a gift in 2010, when his Republican opponent talked about rape that results in pregnancy as something “God intended,” but he may not be so lucky this time.

Trump won the state by 19 points, but the White House has stayed out of this one, and there doesn’t appear to be all that much daylight between the three GOP hopefuls, policywise. All three have tried to play the Trump card early and often. Braun’s ads say that he’s running “because President Trump paved the way.” Rokita proudly puts on a Make America Great Again hat in one of his spots. And Messer claims to be working to nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The primary has been one of the nastiest intra-party battles in recent memory. An incomplete sampling of the slime: Braun has used his cash—and his cardboard—to dub Rokita and Messer “swamp brothers,” and has blasted them for their criticism of Trump during the 2016 campaign. The two congressmen have hit Braun for his past votes in Democratic primaries, as well as his 2017 vote in the state Legislature to raise Indiana fuel taxes. Rokita’s campaign wrote a children’s book mocking Messer for moving out of Indiana after he was elected to Congress. Messer responded by trying to label Rokita “Lyin’ Todd.” The list goes on. As Republican National Committeeman John Hammond III put it to the Associated Press: “This race has slowly but surely descended into Dante’s Inferno. It will provide the Democrats an awful lot of free opposition research.”

Ohio Senate

Stop me if this one sounds familiar: This GOP Senate primary involves an establishment Republican with the backing of Donald Trump and an outsider candidate who seems to have far more in common with Donald Trump.

The race between Trump-endorsed U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci and Cleveland businessman Mike Gibbons isn’t getting as much attention as the other two GOP Senate primaries on Tuesday’s docket, in part because Renacci is widely expected to win it. But Renacci has a moderate record that could theoretically be vulnerable in a low-turnout primary.

Renacci, a soft-spoken former lobbyist, isn’t the man Republicans wanted in this race, but he’s the best they could do after Sen. Sherrod Brown’s 2012 opponent, state treasurer Josh Mandel, dropped out in January, and McConnell failed in his bid to recruit Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance. Meanwhile, Gibbons, an investment banker and longtime Republican donor, was a major fundraiser for Trump and the RNC in 2016. But he’s a first-time candidate, meaning he’d be an unknown quantity in a high-profile general election against Brown, who’s been winning elections in Ohio since the 1970s.

Nonpartisan handicappers see Brown as potentially vulnerable this fall, after Trump won Ohio by 8 points in 2016. But Brown isn’t in the same category as Manchin or Donnelly, in part because of Brown’s populist appeal and massive campaign war chest, and the relatively weak GOP field.

North Carolina House

Every 12 years, there’s one campaign in North Carolina with no statewide races on the ballot, what locals call a “blue-moon election.” Dampening excitement further is the state’s gerrymandered congressional map, which means only a couple seats are in play in November, and most of those have primaries that are basically uncontested.

The most intriguing primaries on Tuesday are a couple insurgent challenges to Republican incumbents. Reps. Robert Pittenger in the 9th District faces a rematch against Mark Harris, a prominent local pastor who came within 200 votes of toppling Pittenger in 2016. Both Pittenger and Harris feature Trump in their respective pitches, though Pittenger frames himself as a congressional ally of the president, while Harris is attacking his rival as a creature of Washington. Whoever wins on Tuesday is expected to face off against Dan McCready, a veteran and businessman who has excited Washington Democrats with his Conor Lamb–type vibes.

Meanwhile, Rep. Walter Jones is trying to hang on for one final term, in the face of a spirited challenge from Scott Dacey, a local county commissioner and lobbyist. The race made some national headlines after Dacey accused Jones of taking money from liberal boogeyman George Soros, and Jones took legal action to defend himself. In fact, it’s Dacey who’s benefiting from some shadowy outside groups who are spending big on his behalf. If Dacey somehow manages to pull off the upset, it’ll strike even more fear into the heart of Republican incumbents everywhere.