Will Dems Pick the GOP Nominee?

The Briefing, Vol. VI, Issue 19

This week:

  • Two key Senate primaries Tuesday
  • Dems counting on a Blankenship win in W.Va.
  • Left and Lefter: Democrats duel for Ohio nomination


At long last, the primary season is here in earnest. The month of May will be chock full of elections. Voters in Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia will vote Tuesday. A week later, on May 15, Idaho, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Nebraska will vote. On May 22, Arkansas, Georgia, and Kentucky voters will nominate candidates, and Texas will also hold its primary runoff.

In June, 17 states will hold their primaries in June, plus the runoff for any unresolved Arkansas races.

Two of this week’s primaries — in Indiana and West Virginia — will determine who Republicans send up against vulnerable incumbent Democratic senators. There is no one right candidate in either case, although there is one very wrong candidate in the West Virginia race.

Although Republicans continue to face headwinds in the Trump midterm,  their situation is better now than it was two months ago. Recent generic ballot polls show Democrats with a more modest lead than before — between three and six points, as opposed to flirting with double digits. And as a new poll of the Senate swing states suggests, the Republican numbers (and Trump’s numbers, for that matter) look considerably better in the states where key Senate races are being run. Republicans actually lead the generic ballot in Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and West Virginia. Were they actually to win the Senate races in all of those states, they would gain a net five or six Senate seats.

It’s too soon to make final pronouncements about the House being a lost cause for the GOP. But it’s certainly a much tougher fight. And the party’s top priority either way, and Trump’s top priority certainly, has to be keeping the Senate so that Trump’s nominees, especially his judicial nominees, can continue to move through the pipeline without Democratic interference.

Senate 2018

Indiana: Tuesday’s three-way primary election between Mike Braun and Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita is characterized mostly by the high number of undecided voters, but give the slight edge to Braun, the non-politician who is benefiting from a food fight between his politician rivals. What’s more, Senate Republicans are ready to back him to the hilt if he does manage to pull it off — no hard feelings for knocking off two sitting House members. The winner takes on Sen. Joe Donnelly, D, in what could be the first clear measurement of where Indiana’s politics have shifted during the Trump era.

West Virginia: The outcome of this Republican primary tomorrow will say a lot about how 2018 is going to turn out overall for the party.

Democrats have spent well over $1 million to make Don Blankenship the Republican nominee. If they succeed, then they retain a serious chance of Their reason? Blankenship, who spent time in prison for mining safety violations that resulted in 29 deaths, is so toxic that they think he cannot beat Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. This mirrors their 2012 strategy in Missouri, when Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., successfully interfered in the Republican Senate primary, made Todd Akin her opponent, and thus successfully avoided what had seemed like a likely defeat.

But it’s going to be a much heavier lift for them to accomplish anything similar this year in West Virginia. First of all, Blankenship is polling in third place, and he’s doing himself no favors recording ads in which he looks and sounds like he’s been abducted by North Korea. It’s more likely that either Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (putatively the more conservative choice) or Rep. Evan Jenkins is going to win. (Slight edge to Jenkins, but it’s close enough and there are enough undecided voters that it could legitimately go either way.)

Second and more importantly, there has been a dramatic slide in Manchin’s approval rating

Manchin has survived West Virginia’s abrupt political realignment because he has been one of its most popular politicians, dating back to his time as governor. But according to Morning Consult, which periodically monitors approval ratings for all 100 U.S. senators, the bloom is off the rose. Since the end of 2017, Manchin’s approval rating has slid from 52 percent to 41 percent, and his disapproval rating has risen from 36 percent to 46 percent. Which is to say, he’s gone from a 16-point net approval rating to a five-point net disapproval rating — a 21-point slide in just a few months.

Anti-Democrat sentiment in the Mountain State is unlike anything Manchin faced in his last two elections, in 2012 and 2010. In the interim, West Virginia went from total Democratic domination in all offices of state government save one (attorney general), to a Republican sweep of all statewide offices save one (treasurer). Both houses of the state legislature have flipped from Blue to Red, as has one of the two U.S. Senate seats and all three House seats.

The anti-coal policies of the Obama era very clearly soured the state on all Democrats. Note that Barack Obama got nearly 43 percent of West Virginians’ vote in 2008. He got nearly 36 percent in 2012. By 2016, the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, got just over 26 percent.

Manchin won his earlier elections easily, but his popularity was very high at that time. His personal buffer has disappeared now, and with Trump’s approval at 23 points net positive in his state, Manchin cannot be favored to win — not even in a massive Blue Wave election — unless he succeeds in making Don Blankenship his opponent.

It must be noted: Democrats’ chances of winning the Senate shrink dramatically if they cannot hang on to this seat.

Governor 2018

Ohio: The Democratic primary between former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray and former Rep. Dennis Kucinich has been a very interesting ride. The race became a proxy war between Elizabeth Warren, who backs Cordray, and Bernie Sanders, who has taken Kucinich’s side. And as that would indicate, it’s a race between the left wing of the party and the even farther left wing, a reflection of the ideological direction of the party in general.

Although Kucinich gave him quite a scare, Cordray is favored to win on Tuesday, and he’s likely the more formidable of the two in the general election. Attorney General Mike DeWine is favored for the Republican nomination.

Idaho: Developer Tommy Ahlquist has been going nuclear against both of his opponents in the Republican primary, Lt. Gov. Brad Little and Rep. Raul Labrador. His ads run almost non-stop on network TV. But he’s focused much more squarely on Little, who is closer to sharing his ideological lane and competing for some of his same voters.

Labrador should be favored to prevail next Tuesday, as the most conservative candidate running in a very conservative state, and with a history of extremely strong get-out-the-vote efforts that have surprised people in the past, as when he won in 2010.