(Bloomberg) -- Republican officials were thrown into a panic on the cusp of Tuesday’s three crucial Senate primaries as they confronted a late surge by controversial and confrontational candidate Don Blankenship in West Virginia.
There’s a high level of concern among party leaders that Blankenship, a former coal executive who served prison time and has launched racially tinged attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife, could win the three-way Republican primary, said one GOP strategist familiar with the race. That could damage Republican chances of ousting Democratic Senator Joe Manchin in November.
The threat prompted President Donald Trump to weigh in with a warning that GOP voters must avoid a repeat of last year’s special election in Alabama, in which their candidate’s controversial past and statements resulted in the election of a Democrat in a solidly Republican state.
The Republican drama in West Virginia overshadowed contests in Indiana and Ohio to pick the GOP candidates who’ll take on Democratic senators Joe Donnelly and Sherrod Brown. Like Manchin, both hold seats that are GOP takeover targets this fall. Republicans control the Senate 51-49, and are eyeing seats of 10 Democrats in states Trump won in 2016, while also defending seats currently held by held by the GOP in Tennessee, Nevada and Arizona.
West Virginia is an especially inviting target for Republicans seeking to consolidate their hold on the Senate. While Manchin is a former governor and remains popular, Trump won the state by 42 percentage points in 2016.
Trump on Monday pleaded with West Virginians to pick one of the other two Republican candidates, Representative Evan Jenkins or Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. He evoked the Alabama contest between Democrat Doug Jones and former judge, Roy Moore, the Republican candidate who was accused of preying on teenage girls while he was in his 30s.
"Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State...No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!" Trump tweeted.
Blankenship also brought up the Alabama race in his response Monday, noting that after Trump’s candidate lost in the primary he ultimately endorsed Moore in the special election.
"We all really like President Trump’s policies but we know that he doesn’t get things right," Blankenship said in a community television presentation paid for by his campaign. "He recommended that people vote for a guy that was basically accused of pedophilia in Alabama."
He said the president was "misinformed" and that he expects to win the primary and general election. "I’m basically Trumpier than Trump."
Blankenship has gone after McConnell of Kentucky, suggesting he faces a conflict of interest because he’s married to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan to Chinese parents. He called Chao’s father a “wealthy China person.” He followed the comments with an ad saying: “Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people.”
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said Monday that the West Virginia primary appears to be a toss-up.
Two polls conducted for rival campaigns in recent days showed Blankenship leading by a very narrow margin over the two other Republicans despite prior polls that showed him losing support, according to the Weekly Standard.
In another sign of concern, Morrisey released a web ad Sunday describing Blankenship as a "convicted criminal." Blankenship was convicted of conspiring to violate mine safety rules in connection with a 2010 explosion that led to 29 deaths.
South Dakota Senator John Thune, the No. 3 Republican leader, said Blankenship winning the primary “wouldn’t be good’’ for the party.
“Let’s just hope and pray that that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Senator Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who is retiring at the end of his term, said the GOP should withhold its backing for Blankenship. He said he would support Manchin in the general election if the former coal company executive wins.
In Ohio, the clear favorite for the Republican nomination for the Senate is Representative Jim Renacci. Democrats face a contested primary for the governor’s race between former Obama administration official Richard Cordray and liberal ex-congressman Dennis Kucinich. North Carolina will also hold primaries for the House and state legislature, but there’s no Senate or governor’s race on the ballot.
The Indiana contest is one of the year’s most bruising primaries, with three GOP Senate candidates blanketing the airwaves with attack ads as they vie for the votes of Trump supporters in a state the president won by 19 percentage points.
Representative Todd Rokita carried a cardboard cutout of Trump to some rallies and aired TV ads wearing a red "Make America Great Again” baseball cap. Representative Luke Messer last week nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. And self-funding Indiana businessman Michael Braun draws parallels between himself and Trump, pointing to his status as a political outsider and job creator.
"They are compelled to compete for the Trump voter,” said Brian Howey, publisher of the nonpartisan Howey Politics Indiana political report. "The president’s standing with independent voters is pretty poor, and whoever is running in November is going to need those independent voters. There are real dangers in tacking too close to Trump.”
Howey says if Rokita wins, that could pose the biggest challenge for Republicans vying to wrest the seat from Donnelly. The conservative GOP lawmaker has displayed sharp partisan edges throughout the primary, he said, coming across as a "bomb thrower” and giving Donnelly plenty of fodder for the fall campaign.
"Braun would be the tougher matchup,” he said, adding that Braun’s chances of winning have increased in recent weeks.
Of the three incumbent Senate Democrats in Tuesday’s primary contests, Donnelly and Manchin face tougher challenges and have taken steps to fashion a voting record that occasionally breaks with their party, with the support of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Both voted for several controversial Trump nominees, including Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
As their races turn toward the general election, they’ll work to highlight their centrist leanings, and their efforts to put themselves at the center of pragmatic debates aiding home-state constituencies.
Donnelly, the only Indiana lawmaker to serve on a congressional agriculture committee, in coming weeks will have a central role advancing a farm bill that includes subsidies for crop-growers in his home state. Manchin will be highlighting a drive to secure pensions of West Virginia coal miners whose benefits are threatened by an underfunded United Mine Workers plan.
"Senator Manchin has to do what he has done in the past and that is appeal to crossover voters" who may prefer Republicans but are open to the right kind of Democrat, said West Virginia-based Democratic strategist Mike Plante. "He’s been successful at that as governor and as senator."
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