Senate Is on the Line in Republican Primaries

(Bloomberg) -- The primary elections on Tuesday may put the Republicans’ Senate majority for 2019 on the line. And the party may be about to once again give away its best chances of winning a seat by nominating a weak candidate in West Virginia.

Republicans currently hold 51 Senate seats, so Democrats need to pick up two (since Republicans would organize a 50-50 Senate thanks to Vice President Mike Pence). Democrats have two pretty good targets in Nevada and Arizona. After that it’s tough going, with two or three long-odds opportunities. But Republicans have solid chances of defeating Democratic incumbents in Missouri, North Dakota, Florida, Indiana and West Virginia. Indiana and West Virginia choose their nominees Tuesday. 

The big focus is on West Virginia. President Donald Trump on Monday posted a tweet urging voters not to vote for Don Blankenship, who appears to have had a late surge, although there are no recent public polls and reporting on private polling is mixed (and perhaps not to be trusted very much). Trump said that Blankenship would be a poor general election candidate, which is probably true on two counts: He’s a former coal executive who has been convicted and spent time in prison on charges related to lax safety procedures that led to 29 deaths in the Upper Big Branch disaster, and he’s been running as a bigot. 

In response, Blankenship tweeted that he was “Trumpier than Trump.” If he has surged (some reporters seem to believe it’s the case), it is apparently the result of calling Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” and attacking McConnell’s wife, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, and her family as “China people” as opposed to “America people.” 

This is, no doubt, a very Trump-like campaign strategy: Be as outrageous as possible to monopolize voter attention, figuring that enough voters will either like the bigotry or enjoy the outrageousness (and tolerate the bigotry). While Trump managed to win the general election, Republicans have lost about half a dozen winnable Senate contests in recent years by nominating terrible candidates such as Roy Moore in Alabama. West Virginia has become a very Republican state, but Senator Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat, is still a good candidate and could easily win against either of the other candidates in the race; he’d be an odds-on favorite against Blankenship.

The most obvious lesson here is that a party that nominates folks such as Trump and Moore may not have any ability to signal to its voters that any candidate is over the line — whether that line is about bigotry, qualifications for office, or anything else. Blankenship’s attack on McConnell is not only utter garbage, but it would have no chance to be effective in a normal party. Why should West Virginia primary voters even know who the Senate majority leader is? But Republican Party leaders have been training their voters to reflexively oppose their own “establishment” for a decade or more, without worrying about how easy it is to turn that message against anyone who wins office.

The other story here is how Trump pays no attention to maximizing his own influence. A single tweet the day before the election is unlikely to move many votes — and the president asked voters to support either of the other candidates, so he didn’t even supply effective cues to those who want to defeat Blankenship. But Trump has put his reputation on the line once again, and he may well be shown yet again to be a paper tiger, unable to supply the votes to defeat Blankenship in West Virginia just as he was unable to deliver a primary victory for then-Senator Luther Strange in Alabama over Moore. There is anecdotal evidence that Republicans still fear Trump’s Twitter account, but sooner or later that’s going to fade if he backs losers. 

  1. Cook Political Reports lists seven other Democratic-held seats as Lean or Likely Democratic, so it's certainly possible Republicans could win one or more of those as well. I suspect however that if they do, then the Republican majority will already be secure. Cook also assesses the Republican open seat in Tennessee as a toss-up; if so, then Democrats have three good targets, with a fourth possible if a second Arizona seat is on the ballot.

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