Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief after establishment-backed candidates won key Senate primaries, bolstering the GOP’s chances of defending or even expanding the Senate majority in November.
Though Republicans face a favorable Senate map — defending just eight incumbents, compared to Democrats’ 26 — they were increasingly worried that primary infighting would result in controversial nominees with too much baggage to win a general election.
Instead, the GOP establishment secured victories in three races that could decide their ability to keep or expand the party’s fragile 51-seat majority this fall.
Two wealthy Senate hopefuls — businessman Mike Braun in Indiana and GOP Rep. Jim RenacciJames (Jim) B. RenacciSanity prevails in primary elections Former NFL wide receiver wins GOP primary in Ohio Dear Washington, you stink MORE in Ohio — won their Senate primaries, giving Republicans candidates they can feel good about ahead of November. Braun will face Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellySanity prevails in primary elections Dem super PAC ramps up attacks following GOP primaries GOP group previews attacks in Indiana, W.Va. and Ohio Senate races MORE (D), while Renacci will face Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownFormer NFL wide receiver wins GOP primary in Ohio GOP group previews attacks in Indiana, W.Va. and Ohio Senate races Blue wave? Not so fast after GOP-friendly primary results. MORE (D) — both crucial races for Republicans after President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump greets 3 American detainees freed by North Korea Trump called Blankenship after Senate primary loss: report Education Dept to relax rules restricting faith-based institutions from getting federal aid MORE won the states in 2016.
The Republican establishment also avoided disaster in West Virginia, with voters choosing state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to face Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump called Blankenship after Senate primary loss: report Trump praises CIA pick Haspel after Senate hearing McCain urges Senate to reject Haspel’s nomination MORE (D), instead of former coal CEO and ex-convict Don Blankenship.
West Virginia’s primary results marked a personal victory for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump called Blankenship after Senate primary loss: report Sanity prevails in primary elections Mellman: Who’s hurting GOP Senate prospects? MORE (R-Ky.). Blankenship frequently attacked McConnell during the primary, nicknaming him “Cocaine Mitch” and accusing him of creating jobs for “China people” and benefiting from his “China family” — a reference to McConnell’s Chinese-American wife.
McConnell — not known for off-the-cuff chats with reporters — took a victory lap off the Senate floor to tout his party’s chances and take a final parting shot at Blankenship.
“It worked out very well, we have a nominee who can win in November. That’s what we hoped for,” he told reporters.
McConnell repeatedly held his fire against Blankenship, who spent a year in prison for conspiring to violate mine safety standards after a fatal mine explosion that killed 29 people. McConnell declined, for example, to say this week if he believed ads targeting the family of his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoChao names participants selected for drone pilot program Blankenship concedes GOP Senate primary in W.Va. GOP West Virginia Senate primary: live results MORE, were racist.
But McConnell didn’t hold back after it became clear that Blankenship would lose on Tuesday night. His official account tweeted a photo of the majority leader edited onto a promotional image for the Netflix series “Narcos,” which depicts the life of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, with the message “Thanks for playing, Don.”
And McConnell tried to use Blankenship’s setback as a clear signal to other conservative challengers that personally attacking him wouldn’t be enough to win the party’s nomination.
McConnell noted Wednesday that Blankenship’s strategy of making him enemy No. 1 “didn’t seem to work too well.”
“I’m glad the people of West Virginia decided that particular approach of attacking me and my family was good for a distant third place,” McConnell said pointedly in a separate interview with Fox News.
Morrisey styles himself as a “conservative fighter” with the backing of GOP Sens. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump called Blankenship after Senate primary loss: report Trump praises CIA pick Haspel after Senate hearing McCain urges Senate to reject Haspel’s nomination MORE (Ky.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOvernight Energy: Poll finds majority oppose Trump offshore drilling plan | Senators say Trump endorsed ethanol deal | Automaker group wants to keep increasing efficiency standards Trump agrees to ethanol mandate changes, senators say Cambridge Analytica ordered to hand over data on US voter MORE (Texas), who frequently cause headaches for McConnell.
And while he refuses to say he would support McConnell as GOP leader and talks about wanting to “blow up” the Senate, Republicans — just happy to defeat Blankenship — are eagerly embracing him.
Blankenship hasn’t faded from view entirely, taking closing shots at both Morrisey and McConnell.
“Mitch McConnell’s cocaine tweet is just more proof that he is not an America person. … He thinks it’s funny that his family’s shipping business hauls cocaine on the high seas,” Blankenship said in a statement.
But Republican senators are making it clear they are ready to move on.
GOP Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeGeorge Will: Pence has chosen to be ‘horrifying’ Manchin becomes first Democrat to back Haspel GOP senator: Withdrawing from Iran deal not in ‘national interest’ MORE (R-Ariz.), who threatened to donate to Manchin if Blankenship was the party’s nominee, said the outcome of the race “restores my faith.”
GOP Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneSenate Dems move to force net neutrality vote Senate GOP warms to Trump’s rescissions package GOP struggles with supporting Blankenship in West Virginia MORE (S.D.), the No. 3 Senate Republican, described McConnell as “very upbeat.”
“I just think that he decided after 2014 … [to] become much more involved and engaged and I think realizes that that helps us get the best possible outcomes and gives us the best chance of keeping and maintaining the majority,” he said.
Thune added that McConnell was okay with getting “beat up” by anti-establishment candidates.
“That’s the price of being the leader. … I think they accept that and deal with that,” said Sen. John CornynJohn CornynWhite House-backed prison reform bill advances in House Senate GOP warms to Trump’s rescissions package Overnight Defense: Trump pulls US out of Iran nuke deal | Reaction and fallout | Obama calls decision a ‘serious mistake’ | Show of force for CIA pick | New questions after briefing on Niger MORE (R-Texas), McConnell’s No. 2, when asked about McConnell’s “boogeyman” status among conservatives.
The first round of victories marks a shift from last year’s election in Alabama, where conservative firebrand Roy MooreRoy Stewart MooreTrump called Blankenship after Senate primary loss: report Sanity prevails in primary elections The Hill’s 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Pfizer — CIA nominee on the hot seat MORE (R) beat former Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeBlankenship: I’m Trumpier than Trump National GOP pours in money to stop Blankenship in West Virginia GOP intensifies war against Blankenship in West Virginia MORE (R-Ala.) in the primary, only to go on to lose the general election to Democrat Doug Jones.
McConnell and his allies went all in against Moore, who was accused of pursuing relationships with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. But their strategy ultimately backfired, fueling Moore’s anti-establishment credentials.
With GOP wins this week, though, Republicans appear increasingly confident they’ll be able to keep similarly controversial candidates from becoming their party’s standard-bearers.
“If you don’t nominate somebody who’s appealing to a broader audience, you can’t win. Since then, the only place that didn’t work out well was Alabama. I think we are in the process of getting fully electable nominees in all our primaries this year, which gives us the best chance possible,” McConnell told reporters.
Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisOvernight Defense: Trump pulls US out of Iran nuke deal | Reaction and fallout | Obama calls decision a ‘serious mistake’ | Show of force for CIA pick | New questions after briefing on Niger GOP struggles with supporting Blankenship in West Virginia Senators riled after closed-door briefing on Niger investigation MORE (R-N.C.), vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called the Alabama race an “anomaly.”
“[It] was a great outcome in Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia. We’ve got candidates who I think are going to be great candidates going into the general election,” he said.
McConnell’s willingness to intervene in GOP primary fights comes after Republicans faced setbacks in 2010 and 2012 over controversial, conservative candidates who won the primary only to lose races that GOP leadership had viewed as prime pickup opportunities.
“We’ve learned a painful lesson over the years and that is when Republicans nominate unelectable candidates we ultimately end up defeating ourselves,” Cornyn said.
Republicans aren’t out of the woods yet, with additional GOP primary fights looming over the summer. The primary schedule includes heated battles in Arizona and Mississippi.
In Arizona, McConnell and his allies have lined up behind Rep. Martha McSallyMartha Elizabeth McSallyGeorge Will: Pence has chosen to be ‘horrifying’ Pence in Arizona hails Arpaio as ‘champion’ of ‘rule of law’ House Republicans reserve millions in early air time MORE (R-Ariz.), but she’s facing a challenge from conservative Kelli Ward and former sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Vice President Pence praised Arpaio — a controversial figure whom Trump pardoned after he was found guilty of criminal contempt — during a recent stop in the state. Pence called him a “great friend of this president, a tireless champion of strong borders and the rule of law.”
In Mississippi, Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R) is facing a challenge from conservative firebrand Chris McDaniel. The White House has reportedly said it will not back Hyde-Smith, a former Democrat.
Democrats, meanwhile, are wasting no time ratcheting up their rhetorical fire now that their November opponents are locked down.
Manchin said he feels “good” about the race, but also took a veiled swipe at Morrisey’s New Jersey roots — borrowing a tactic from Morrisey’s primary opponents.
“I want to say one thing very clearly: There was only conservative West Virginian Republican in that race and that was Don Blankenship,” Manchin said. “You want a true West Virginian and a true conservative day in and day out … that was him.”