Primary Elections Now Could Set Control of Congress

(Bloomberg) -- A handful of closely watched primaries today will shape important contests in the November general election. They will also gauge the intensity of anti-Washington sentiment.

The fate of two endangered incumbent Democratic senators in Republican states, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, could rest on who wins the bitter GOP primaries in those states.

The early front-runners in Indiana were Representative Luke Messer, the preference of the GOP establishment, and the right-wing, Donald Trump-like Representative Todd Rokita. Given the unpopularity of House Republicans, Democrats liked Donnelly’s chances against either, especially Rokita. 

But as the two lawmakers slashed away at each other, a third candidate, wealthy GOP businessman Mike Braun, has surged. A victory by Braun, who is running as a political outsider, would reinforce the anti-Washington mood and would not be welcomed by Donnelly. In the past week, however, stories have emerged that raise questions about Braun’s business record. 

In West Virginia, the “outsider” businessman is former coal CEO Don Blankenship, who spent a year in prison for willfully violating mine-safety rules. His conviction came several years after an explosion at one of his company’s mines killed 29 men. His candidacy horrifies Republicans in Washington, and they have poured in money to defeat him. Blankenship, who claims he was a “political prisoner,” has struck back, trying to smear Senate leader Mitch McConnell’s “China family,” referring to McConnell’s wife, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, over her Taiwanese ancestry. 

The ugliness of the whole campaign, also involving the other two more conventional choices, Representative Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, has enhanced Manchin’s prospects. Democrats, if they can’t get Blankenship as the opponent to run against in November, are cheering for Morrisey. Trump carried West Virginia by 43 points, but Manchin, a former governor, remains popular. 

In the Ohio governor’s race, it’s the Democrats who are worried about the outcome of their primary. They want to win the statehouse both because of the redistricting that will follow the next census and because of the political importance of Ohio. They feel comfortable with the preferred candidate, Richard Cordray, a former Ohio attorney general and the head of the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau until he was dumped by Trump.

Ohio’s leading Democrats actively support him, along with national figures like Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. But over the last month, Dennis Kucinich, the lefty politician who ran for president in 2004 and 2008, has aroused the passions and backing of Bernie Sanders supporters and has a shot at winning today.

Republicans are salivating over that possibility. Kucinich has met with and spoken favorably of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and took a $20,000 speaking fee from a pro-Assad group; under pressure he gave it back. He also says he has seen UFOs.

The likely Republican victor today is state Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator who has been an elected politician for 40 years. He would start as a heavy favorite against Kucinich and a slight underdog against Cordray.

Turning to North Carolina, the focus is back on a Republican primary contest, this one in the ninth congressional district around Charlotte. Democrats are hoping to pick up this House seat in November. They would like to see the Republican incumbent, Robert Pittenger, who has been embroiled in ethics controversies, wins his party’s primary. 

In 2016, Pittenger won the general election easily against a Democratic unknown, whom he outspent by 20 to 1. This year Democrats have recruited Dan McCready, a small-business owner and Marine combat veteran, who is matching Pittenger’s fund-raising. Democrats believe their candidate has a good chance this fall.

November is still six months off, but the close contest for political control of the House and Senate may hinge on what some of the voters do in May.

To contact the author of this story: Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.