Republicans kick off campaign to save the Senate
Republicans’ efforts to maintain or expand the party’s Senate majority begin in earnest this week, when GOP primary voters will pick three of the nominees to face incumbent Democrats in states President Donald Trump won two years ago.
The contests on the ballot include the blockbuster race in West Virginia, where Republicans are newly concerned that Don Blankenship — the once-imprisoned former coal baron running a scorched-earth campaign against the GOP establishment — could win the nomination and threaten the party’s chances to topple Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), even in a state Trump carried by 42 percentage points in 2016.
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Ten Republicans will challenge Democrats in Trump states this November. In addition to West Virginia, Republicans will also choose two other Senate nominees Tuesday in crucial races: Indiana and Ohio — states Trump carried decisively. And each of those three primary campaigns has turned more pitched and acrimonious in the run-up to the vote, an early sign of ugly midterm fights ahead in states that will help determine which party controls the Senate for the next two years.
Republicans on Tuesday will also hold closely watched congressional primaries in North Carolina and Ohio that will shed light on the party’s posture going into the midterms, while Democrats’ efforts to mount a comeback in the nation’s statehouses begins Tuesday with a critical primary for Ohio governor.
But it’s the West Virginia Senate contest that has roiled the national landscape — in large part because of establishment Republicans’ efforts to derail Blankenship’s campaign, and Blankenship’s inflammatory and at times racially charged rhetoric in response.
Many in the party are convinced that a Blankenship win would destroy the party’s prospects of defeating Manchin in November. They draw parallels to last year’s special election in Alabama, where former state Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who was accused during the campaign of decades-old sexual misconduct involving underage women, won the GOP nomination before losing to now-Sen. Doug Jones, the state’s first Democratic senator in 25 years.
Republicans still expect to have an easier time in Senate races in the midterms. Democrats must defend all 10 tough seats and pick up two more to take control of the Senate. But with a surge of activism on the left, Republicans fear a few surprise losses such as Moore’s could cost them their expected advantage.
For a while, many senior Republicans in Washington believed that Blankenship — who spent a year in prison following the 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers — had been neutralized and that two mainstream candidates, GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins or state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, were most likely to prevail.
Public polling conducted in recent weeks showed Blankenship fading amid an avalanche of attacks from a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The group, Mountain Families PAC, has spent over $1.3 million on TV commercials attacking Blankenship.
But in the race’s final days, some Republicans are concerned that Blankenship has bounced back. The former coal baron has dug into his own pockets to fund a $2.5 million TV blitz, spending far more than his primary rivals. During the final six days of the race, Blankenship spent more than $640,000 on the air, outstripping Jenkins and Morrisey combined, according to media buying totals.
Also worrying senior Republicans is the fact that Jenkins and Morrisey spent the final stretch of the race savaging each other in debates and TV commercials, a dynamic that damaged both of them and could create an opening for Blankenship. Jenkins also found himself under assault from Duty and Country, a super PAC run by national Democrats who view the congressman as a threat in the general election and want to prevent him from winning the primary.
During the final days of the race, Blankenship waged a slash-and-burn campaign targeting McConnell. The attacks were at times harshly personal and even racial in nature, with the former coal baron going after the family of McConnell’s spouse, Taiwanese-born Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. While Blankenship has come under widespread criticism for his assault, some Republicans worry that he’ll succeed in tapping into conservative antagonism toward McConnell.
As the contest comes to a close, some Republicans are raising alarms. Last Thursday, the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., sent out a tweet urging West Virginians to “reject Blankenship.”
And on Sunday afternoon, Morrisey ratcheted up the pressure, announcing that he would seek to inform Blankenship’s probation officer of Blankenship’s refusal to submit financial disclosure forms to the Senate required of all candidates.
Asked Sunday afternoon by a reporter at a press conference in Charleston why he waited until two days before the election to level these charges, Morrisey cited Blankenship’s late surge.
“To be honest, I thought that West Virginians would see through the candidacy of Don Blankenship even more,” the state attorney general said. “And it’s apparent over the last couple days — as he’s been moving up, getting very close in the polls — I think it’s in the public interest to be able to talk about this information.”