WASHINGTON — Republicans narrowly averted political disaster in the West Virginia Senate primary Tuesday with the defeat of former coal executive Don Blankenship while mainstream Democrats fended off a liberal insurgent in the Ohio governor’s race, bringing relief to the establishment of both parties on a day of elections in four states.
In the West Virginia Senate primary, Blankenship came in a distant third after an eleventh-hour intervention by President Donald Trump coordinated by Senate Republicans. They saw Blankenship as unelectable and unworthy of the Senate, given that he served a year in prison in connection with a mining disaster in 2010 that killed 29 men, and made racially offensive comments during the campaign.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the Republican nomination to challenge Sen. Joe Manchin III, one of the most vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election this year.
Blankenship, speaking to reporters Tuesday night, said he believed a hostile tweet by Trump may have cost him 10 percentage points or more in the race. After the May 1 debate, he maintained, all three candidates’ internal surveys showed him surging into the lead.
“That might have been the Trump impact,” he said of his loss. “When you’re 84 percent positive like he is, it can be big.”
In a hard-fought battle in Ohio between two liberal Democrats, Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, won the party’s nomination in the governor’s race over the former congressman and presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich.
The victory by Cordray, who was endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and drew strong labor support, came as a relief to many Democrats who saw Kucinich as likely to lose in the fall, given his sharply left-wing views and ties to a group sympathetic to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Cordray will compete against Mike DeWine, the state attorney general, who claimed the Republican nomination after an aggressive challenge from Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.
“This victory happened for a reason,” Cordray told supporters at a hotel in downtown Columbus, as they cheered and waved campaign signs. “You demanded change and we heard you and we want the same.”
Echoing a campaign message that focused largely on helping the little guy, he promised to continue fighting for “kitchen-table issues that people across Ohio told us were on their minds,” including access to affordable health care and spreading out economic opportunity.
Another Ohio contest, however, was more on the minds of Washington Republicans: the nomination battle for the Columbus-area seat vacated by former Rep. Pat Tiberi. State Sen. Troy Balderson, who enjoyed support from Tiberi, narrowly defeated business executive Melanie Leneghan, a conservative with backing from members of the House Freedom Caucus, in a contest that became a proxy war between party factions.
National Republicans were considering not competing in the special election had Leneghan won, but now they will likely aggressively target Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor, the Democratic nominee, in what has been a conservative-leaning district. A special election will be held in August.
In the race for the House seat left open by Rep. James Renacci of Ohio, a Republican who easily won the nomination to face Sen. Sherrod Brown, former NFL wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez defeated state Rep. Christina Hagan in a contest where establishment-aligned Republicans also grew nervous and poured money in to lift Gonzalez.
Indiana Republicans settled a bloody Senate primary among three largely indistinguishable candidates, selecting Mike Braun, a wealthy former state legislator and business executive, to challenge Sen. Joe Donnelly, a first-term Democrat. Braun campaigned successfully as a political outsider, though his business record is likely to face closer scrutiny in the general election. Donnelly is another vulnerable Democrat in the Senate this year, and Trump is scheduled to campaign against him on Thursday.
“We seem to be in the era of the outsider, said John Hammond, a lawyer and member of the Republican National Committee from Indiana. “That message along with it being extremely well funded, he outspent the other campaigns 2-1.”
And in a low-profile election distinguished only by a famous last name, Greg Pence, the vice president’s brother, claimed the Republican nomination in Indiana’s 6th Congressional District. Pence, who vacuumed up campaign funds from national donors close to his brother, is the strong favorite to win what was his brother’s old seat.
North Carolina did not have any major statewide elections, but voters there delivered the biggest upset of the night: Pittenger, a third-term Republican, was defeated by Harris, a pastor who nearly unseated the congressman in the 2016 primary there.
The first incumbent to lose renomination this year, Pittenger sought to repel Harris by enthusiastically embracing Trump. But he found little support in return from the administration.
Republicans were already concerned about holding the Charlotte-to-Fayetteville-area seat — Democratic nominee Dan McCready was outraising Pittenger — and now must decide how aggressively to support Harris. McCready had over $1.2 million in the bank as of last month while Harris had just $70,000.
In Ohio, Cordray’s victory in the Democratic primary marks an important initial success in his return to electoral politics after serving for most of a decade in the Obama administration.
His success also demonstrated a show of strength for Warren and unions against the more far-left elements of the party, including some of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ allies who had endorsed Kucinich. (Sanders, I-Vt. did not make an endorsement in the race.) Should Cordray win this November, it will give Democrats a foothold back in a battleground state that has been drifting to the right in recent years.
A former Ohio attorney general who was defeated for re-election in 2010, Cordray faced stiff opposition in his political homecoming, most notably from Kucinich, a flamboyant 71-year-old former congressman and Cleveland mayor who is aligned with the far left.
Despite collecting endorsements from powerful labor unions and campaigning alongside Warren — a hero to liberals — Cordray struggled at times to inspire enthusiasm from rank and file Democratic voters.
And after the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in February, Cordray agonized over having taken conservative stances on gun control in the past; he had even earned the endorsement of the National Rifle Association in 2010.
Yet Cordray ultimately had far broader appeal than Kucinich, who also flailed in the final weeks of the race to explain his past praise of Trump and his decision to accept $20,000 from a group supportive of Assad. (After attempting to dismiss questions about the fee, he eventually returned the money.)
Cordray will confront a tougher and more conventional opponent in DeWine. A longtime political hand in Ohio and Washington, DeWine is a powerful fundraiser with a record of running toward the center in difficult elections. DeWine is likely to benefit, somewhat paradoxically, from both Trump’s strength in the state and the popularity of the outgoing governor, John Kasich, a Republican who ran against Trump in 2016 and is one of the president’s most insistent critics.
The burden will be on Cordray to show that his populist message and soft-spoken persona can resonate in a state where Republicans have held the governorship for all but four years since the early 1990s.
But the most closely watched race — and, for Republicans, the most anxiety-inducing one — was in West Virginia, where Blankenship threatened to again torpedo the party’s chances for success in a red-state Senate seat.
Claiming victory Tuesday night, Morrisey quickly turned to what is likely to be the centerpiece of his campaign: driving a wedge between Manchin and Trump.
“When President Trump needed Joe Manchin’s help on so many issues, Sen. Manchin said no,” Morrisey said.
In his own statement, Manchin vowed that the campaign would be “about bringing people together who care about making life better for Americans who work hard for a paycheck.”
Trump had remained quiet about the primary race even as Blankenship began attacking Republican leaders, such as referring to the family of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, as the majority leader’s “China family” and calling McConnell himself “Cocaine Mitch.”
But after a telephone call Sunday with McConnell, and on the advice of his own aides, Trump finally waded into the race with a tweet Monday morning aimed at West Virginians.
“Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State...No way!” Trump wrote, before encouraging voters to support either of Blankenship’s opponents.
Trump also invoked the last time Republicans gave away a Senate seat by nominating a flawed candidate, an event that he suggested would live in political infamy. “Remember Alabama,” he wrote, alluding to the party’s nomination of former state judge Roy S. Moore, who lost a special election after a series of women emerged to accuse him of making sexual advances on them when they were teenagers.
Blankenship faced a series of attacks from Republican groups aligned with McConnell for his role in the explosion and was also criticized for keeping his official residence in Las Vegas and refusing to fully disclose his extensive financial holdings.
But while Morrisey and another candidate, Rep. Evan Jenkins, attacked one another, and a Democratic super PAC assailed Jenkins, Blankenship’s poll numbers crept back up.
By last weekend, when it became clear that he was a threat to win and imperil the party’s one-seat Senate majority, Republican officials determined the moment had come for Trump to step in.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.