(Bloomberg) -- The race for control of Congress kicks into high gear next week with primaries in four key states that will test whether Democrats can turn President Donald Trump’s low approval ratings to their advantage.
Democrats and Republicans in Indiana, West Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina will pick their candidates for Congress, governor and state legislatures on Tuesday. Over the next two months, more than half of U.S. states have nominating contests that will provide a clearer sense of voters’ mood.
Republicans are trying to buck a historical trend in which the party that holds the White House almost always loses seats in midterm elections. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win the House, which is viewed as more likely to change control than the Senate. Democrats are defending 10 Senate seats in states that Trump won in 2016, while while their best hopes of capturing Republican-held seats are in Nevada, Arizona and Tennessee. The GOP controls the Senate 51-49.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, sought to frame the stakes on Wednesday when he warned that if Democrats take control of Congress, they’ll grind the legislative process to a halt and aggressively investigate the Trump administration. "You’ll have gridlock, you’ll have subpoenas," he said at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California.
Voter turnout and the quality of the nominees will help determine Democrats’ prospects of winning majorities in November.
The Senate races in West Virginia and Indiana are rated a toss-up by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. But that could change depending on voters’ choices Tuesday.
In a three-way West Virginia primary, independent analysts and GOP strategists say that a victory by Don Blankenship -- a coal executive who served jail time for a safety violation that killed 29 people -- would squander a winnable seat.
Blankenship is running a scorched-earth campaign, attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. On a West Virginia radio show, he suggested that McConnell 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.”
The other GOP contenders, Representative Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, are seen as stronger candidates to take on incumbent Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat and former governor who has walked a fine line politically to remain viable in a state trending strongly against his party.
“If Blankenship were to win the primary, that race would become much less competitive,” said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor for the Cook Political Report.
Should Blankenship win, Duffy said she would likely adjust her forecast to indicate the seat is leaning Democratic. But she said he has been slipping in polls and seems unlikely to win.
“If Manchin can continue to have appeal across the board to ticket-splitters as he has in the past, he stands an excellent chance of keeping this seat in Democratic hands,” said Mike Plante, a West Virginia-based Democratic strategist. “West Virginians are voting more Republican than Democrat.”
In West Virginia and many GOP primary campaigns around the country, candidates are battling over who is most supportive of Trump.
That dynamic is playing out in Indiana’s Senate contest. A competitive three-way GOP race features a bitter rivalry between U.S. Representatives Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, as well as former state legislator Mike Braun. The winner will take on incumbent Democrat Joe Donnelly.
In a recent ad, Rokita donned a Trump-themed hat with his slogan “Make America Great Again.” Not to be outdone, Messer, who has boasted of his support for Trump in TV ads that feature footage of the two of them together, released a letter Wednesday nominating Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize. The letter lavished Trump with praise for pressuring North Korea over nuclear weapons and his “tireless work to bring peace to our world.”
Braun, a wealthy businessman and former Democrat, suggested in a debate that he “looks more like Donald Trump” as an “outsider that has done something in the real world.”
"Anyone who could predict to you who’s going to win today is not telling the truth,” Messer campaign co-chair Jennifer Hallowell said in an interview. “It’s a very competitive race. We’re saying it’s a four-way race and undecideds still may be in the lead."
GOP candidates may hurt themselves in the general election by closely embracing Trump to win primaries. While roughly four in five Republicans nationally approve of Trump, his rating hovers at around 40 percent with Americans overall, historically a troubling sign for a party in power. The intensity of opposition to Trump could drive Democratic turnout against candidates who embrace the president.
In Ohio, polls show there’s a clear favorite among GOP Senate candidates: Representative Jim Renacci, who is among those signing the letter nominating Trump for a Nobel Prize. The GOP primary winner will take on incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown, the only member of his party elected to statewide office in Ohio. The race is rated "lean Democrat" by the Cook Political Report.
The state also features a competitive Democratic primary for governor between Richard Cordray, a former Obama administration official who ran the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and liberal ex-congressman Dennis Kucinich.
Cordray has touted his work at the bureau, created as part of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul. Kucinich has positioned himself as the more progressive and anti-establishment candidate. On the Republican side of the governor’s race, Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor has aligned herself with Trump in opposing Mike DeWine, the state attorney general and former U.S. senator.
A poll last month commissioned by the 1984 Society found Cordray and DeWine leading in their respective primaries.
In North Carolina, there isn’t a Senate or governor’s race up for grabs this year, but three Republican-held House seats are rated by the Cook Political Report as competitive for Democrats — those held by George Holding, Robert Pittenger and Ted Budd. In addition, Republican-held House seats rated competitive by Cook include five in Ohio, one in Indiana and one in West Virginia.
Democrats have an 8-point advantage among voters asked which party they’d rather see control Congress, according to a Monmouth University poll released Thursday. That’s roughly the margin political analysts believe Democrats will need to take control of the House, because of the GOP-friendly way in which districts are drawn.
Tuesday’s primaries, and those that follow, will signal how motivated Democrats are to oppose Trump. Likewise, they’ll indicate whether Republican voters are enthusiastic about supporting the president.
“Always look at turnout because it tells you something about enthusiasm,” Duffy said. “There aren’t great Democratic primaries to watch for other than Ohio governor, but it tells you something about intensity if, say, the turnout in Indiana is high.”
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