Republicans hope to jump-start their drive to expand the Senate majority Tuesday night by nominating challengers against Democratic senators in three states President Donald Trump carried. But one of those primaries could instead take a deep-red state off the table for the GOP.
The marquee race is in West Virginia, where Washington Republicans are hoping to deny once-imprisoned coal baron Don Blankenship the GOP nomination to face Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. President Donald Trump on Monday called on GOP primary voters to reject Blankenship and choose another candidate because Blankenship “can’t win” a general election against Manchin in November.
There are also primaries Tuesday in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio — all of which are certain to define the political landscape, with sitting congressmen facing primary challenges and another House special election brewing in Ohio, where both parties are also choosing candidates for governor.
Polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern time in Indiana and at 7:30 p.m. Eastern in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. Here are POLITICO’s 7 things to watch:
1. Can Republicans dodge the Blankenship bullet?
The last-minute push to scuttle Blankenship’s bid — including Trump’s tweet on Monday — is a good barometer of GOP concern. While there’s been no public polling in the final two weeks of the race, internal surveys indicate Blankenship has bounced back into contention for the Republican nomination after an initial GOP barrage knocked him off his perch in April.
There’s also concern that the two other major candidates — Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — will split the anti-Blankenship vote evenly. Trump’s tweet notably did not take sides, instead urging voters to back either alternative.
Blankenship’s baggage is obvious: He was convicted of violating safety standards after the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which killed 29 miners, and was only released from jail a year ago. After his release, he settled in Nevada, not West Virginia. More recently, he’s referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) in television ads as “Cocaine Mitch” and made racially charged comments about McConnell’s family.
Manchin has won five statewide elections in his career: one for secretary of state, two for governor, a special election for Senate and a full term two years later. Seeking reelection in a state Trump carried by a whopping 42 percentage points, Manchin could be in the fight of his political life — unless the GOP nominates the wrong candidate.
2. Seeking the Trump mantle in Indiana
Trump hasn’t weighed into the GOP Senate primary in Indiana, but he’s been a frequent presence on the campaign trail.
Mike Braun, the favorite, is a self-funder who says Trump “paved the way” for a candidate who has spent most of his career in business, not politics. Rep. Todd Rokita has been traveling the state with a cardboard cutout of the president, and he donned a red, “Make America Great Again” hat in a recent campaign ad. Rep. Luke Messer wants to nominate Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, based on the early negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
In recent days, Messer and Rokita have attacked Braun, citing his long history of voting in Democratic primaries. But Trump’s trajectory — the president was a long-time donor to Democratic political candidates before running as a Republican — casts doubt on whether that’s still grounds for excommunication in Trump’s GOP.
3. House of pain
Trump’s call to “drain the swamp” is running head-long into the ambitions of up-and-coming GOP politicians.
Jenkins, Messer and Rokita enter the Tuesday primaries as underdogs and could find their political careers on ice if they fall short. Each is ambitious: Rokita, first elected in the 2010 Republican wave, has the most tenure in the House of the three. Jenkins switched parties to challenge then-Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) in 2014.
Across the map, Republicans are counting on House members in a number of key races this fall. National Republicans believe Rep. Martha McSally is the party's best nominee for a Senate seat in Arizona, over one of her bomb-throwing conservative primary challengers. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) is the party’s likely nominee against Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) in a state Trump carried by 36 points. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) will try to keep retiring Sen. Bob Corker’s seat in GOP hands in Tennessee.
One GOP House member likely to prevail on Tuesday in his bid for a nomination for higher office: Rep. Jim Renacci, who is seeking to challenge Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) this fall. Renacci has Trump’s endorsement in the primary against self-funding businessman Mike Gibbons.
4. Another wild special election in Ohio
A proxy battle between former House colleagues has stirred up the special election to replace Rep. Pat Tiberi in Ohio, pitting old foes against each other in this Republican primary.
Rep. Jim Jordan, a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, has lined up behind Melanie Leneghan in the Republican primary, while Tiberi is boosting Troy Balderson, a state senator. Multiple outside groups are involved on both sides, and Jordan and Tiberi appeared in dueling TV ads for their endorsed candidates. Tim Kane, a first-time candidate and veteran who’s self-funding his bid, could also win, having avoided the increasingly bitter back-and-forth between Balderson, Leneghan and their allies.
But Balderson backers say that if Leneghan gets the GOP nomination, she’ll put Ohio’s 12th District — a Republican seat for decades — at risk in the Aug. 7 special election, by alienating suburban Columbus voters in a district that President Donald Trump won by 11 points in 2016.
Republicans are closely watching the Democratic primary, where Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor led the pack in fundraising. O’Connor told POLITICO in March that he wouldn’t be supporting Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, a move that mirrors Rep. Conor Lamb’s strategy in southwestern Pennsylvania.
5. Contrasting styles in Democrats’ biggest primary
The Democratic gubernatorial primary in Ohio has basically come down to two contenders: Richard Cordray, the buttoned-up former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau chief, and Dennis Kucinich, the left-leaning former congressman. Cordray has support from a broad range of “establishment” Democrats as well as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and he has talked up his time protecting Americans’ wallets at the CFPB, but Kucinich has framed himself as the only candidate who can energize grassroots progressives in the primary — and blue-collar voters in the general. A number of Bernie Sanders backers have jumped behind Kucinich, including the nonprofit group Our Revolution.
Both candidates have hit each other for various progressive apostasies — Cordray’s old “A” rating from the NRA, Kucinich’s words of praise for Trump in the past — but the primary has largely been a contest about which type of populism best fits the political moment in the Democratic Party, and whether the candidates can muster sufficient enthusiasm from general election voters to give Democrats a new foothold in the heart of the Midwest this November.
Cordray has more money, more endorsements, and more support in the sparse public polling that’s been available — but Kucinich has lurked within striking distance.
6. GOP congressmen face primary challengers in North Carolina — again
Republican Reps. Robert Pittenger and Walter Jones face stiff primary challenges on Tuesday, though Republicans watching the races expect both to survive. Pittenger opponent Mark Harris and Jones foe Scott Dacey have tried to question the members’ commitment to the Trump agenda – a strategy that Republican primary opponents are using throughout the country.
If Pittenger and Jones weather their GOP challengers, they’ll face distinctly different post-primary paths. Jones, who represents a deep red district in eastern North Carolina, would coast in the general election, and has said he won’t run for reelection in 2020.
But Pittenger, unlike Jones, will go on to face a serious general election fight in the Charlotte suburbs, an area that’s trended away from Republicans in the last year. Democrat Dan McCready, a veteran and businessman, outraised both Pittenger and Harris, holding more cash on hand ahead of November.
7. What are the latest signs of Democratic enthusiasm?
Democrats have been turning out at higher-than-usual rates in 2017 and 2018 so far, propelling them victories in special elections in southwestern Pennsylvania and Alabama, as well as dozens of state legislative seats. Turnout in Tuesday’s primaries will provide yet another window into Democratic enthusiasm in a handful of House races that are expected to be competitive in November.
“If you’re not seeing the increased Democratic enthusiasm and energy on their side, you’re not paying attention,” said Matt Borges, the former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party. “Primary turnout will give us some indication as to what that looks like here.”
In particular, political operatives are watching turnout around Columbus and Cincinnati, Charlotte and Raleigh, all home to swaths of suburban voters — and potentially vulnerable Republican House incumbents.