Insurgent candidates make a lot of noise. But their ability to appeal to the most rabid members of their parties often proves a poor prescription for winning general elections.
By that standard, Tuesday was a good day for both the Republican and Democratic establishments, as voters in the primaries rejected insurgent candidates who might have jeopardized their parties’ chances in several crucial contests in November.
The results may have slightly improved the GOP’s chances of retaining its majority in the Senate, and the Democrats’ hope of recapturing one of the biggest 2018 gubernatorial prizes, in Ohio.
In two of the three states holding Senate primaries, West Virginia and Indiana, where President Donald Trump scored solid 2016 victories, Republicans nominated candidates who could give Democratic incumbents close races. (In the third state, Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown remains favored over GOP Rep. Jim Renacci.)
In the contest that attracted the most attention, West Virginia Republicans rejected Don Blankenship, the controversial former coal mine owner who spent a year in prison for his role in one of the nation’s deadliest mine explosions. Though he labeled himself “Trumpier than Trump,” Blankenship’s racist campaign attracted the enmity of top national Republicans — including Trump — who feared he would cost the GOP its chance of unseating conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
Blankenship said that made the difference. Despite pre-primary reports that private polls showed him surging, he finished third, as state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey edged Rep. Evan Jenkins.
But Republicans still face a challenge against Manchin, the sole high-level Democratic office-holder in a state that has become increasingly Republican in recent years. The senator comfortably won re-nomination but his margin, around 70 percent, wasn’t especially impressive.
In Indiana, Republicans rejected two GOP House members and chose Mike Braun, a wealthy businessman and former state legislator who ran a largely self-funded outsider campaign. Though he joined his rivals in proclaiming himself a conservative Trump supporter, Braun attracted some criticism because of reports he had voted in some past Democratic primaries, which he attributed to a desire to weigh in on local issues.
Unlike his two primary rivals, he’ll be able to avoid identification with the unpopular Republican-controlled Congress in his race against freshman Democrat Joe Donnelly. Donnelly was elected six years ago after Indiana Republicans ousted veteran GOP Sen. Richard Lugar in favor of the arch-conservative state treasurer, Richard Mourdock.
The GOP may need to defeat at least one Democratic incumbent to hold the Senate, because they may have difficulty holding seats in Arizona, Nevada and Tennessee. Their chances in Arizona may hinge on whether Rep. Martha McSally can defeat two more outspokenly conservative rivals, state Sen. Kelli Ward and former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, in the August primary. The Democrats have a strong candidate in the Phoenix-area, Rep. Kyrsten Sinema.
If those two Senate races boosted Republicans Tuesday, Democrats benefited in the race for governor of Ohio, where former state Attorney General Richard Cordray routed one of the party’s most outspoken liberals, former Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
The race featured something of a mini-primary with Cordray supported by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kucinich backed by the organization of Sen. Bernie Sanders, though the Vermont independent did not formally endorse the former Cleveland mayor and congressman.
Cordray, who resigned earlier this year as the head of a consumer watchdog federal agency proposed by Warren and created under the Obama administration, will face Mike DeWine, the veteran Republican office-holder who ousted him as attorney general in a close 2010 contest. Kucinich’s nomination would virtually have ensured DeWine’s election in a state more balanced politically than Indiana or West Virginia though it backed Trump in 2016. Still, the GOP primary turnout was far bigger than Tuesday’s Democratic vote.
In two Ohio congressional districts, Republicans rejected insurgents who might have made winning general elections more difficult. In central Ohio’s12th District, where the resignation of a GOP House member has created an Aug. 7 special election, the party-backed candidate narrowly edged a challenger supported by the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Tuesday’s primaries were only skirmishes in continuing wars. Coming next: several May 22 Democratic runoffs in Texas, notably a Houston-area congressional contest between insurgent Laura Moser and establishment-backed Lizzie Pannill Fletcher.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: [email protected].