Senate GOP relieved after primary wins

Senate GOP relieved after primary wins
© Greg Nash

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. 

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Two wealthy Senate hopefuls — businessman Mike Braun in Indiana and GOP Rep. Jim RenacciJames (Jim) B. RenacciDemocrats fear Ohio slipping further away in 2020 Medicare for All won't deliver what Democrats promise GOP rep: If Mueller had found collusion, 'investigation would have wrapped up very quickly' 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 DonnellyGinsburg health scare raises prospect of election year Supreme Court battle Watchdog accuses pro-Kavanaugh group of sending illegal robotexts in 2018 Lobbying world MORE (D), while Renacci will face Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownTrump pick for Fed seat takes bipartisan fire On The Money: Deficit spikes 25 percent through January | Mnuchin declines to say why Trump pulled Treasury nominee who oversaw Roger Stone case | Lawmakers trade insults over Trump budget cuts Mnuchin defends Treasury regulations on GOP tax law MORE (D) — both crucial races for Republicans after President TrumpDonald John TrumpChasten Buttigieg: 'I've been dealing with the likes of Rush Limbaugh my entire life' Lawmakers paint different pictures of Trump's 'opportunity zone' program We must not turn our heads from the effects of traumatic brain injuries 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) ManchinLawmakers push back at Trump's Pentagon funding grab for wall Overnight Health Care: Appeals court strikes down Medicaid work requirements | Pelosi's staff huddles with aides on surprise billing | Senate Dems pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit Senate Democrats pressure Trump to drop ObamaCare lawsuit 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 McConnellEverytown plans ad blitz on anniversary of House background check bill Kentucky state official says foreign adversaries 'routinely' scan election systems Don't let 'welfare for all' advocates derail administration's food stamp program reforms 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 ChaoWatchdog sues for records of Boeing's communications with Trump's Transportation Department The Hill's Morning Report - Report of Bolton tell-all manuscript roils Trump defense Mitch McConnell may win the impeachment and lose the Senate 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 PaulSenate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Pelosi names first-ever House whistleblower ombudsman director The Hill's Morning Report — AG Barr, GOP senators try to rein Trump in MORE (Ky.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzPompeo to speak to influential Iowa GOP group Top National Security Council aide moved to Energy Department role Ted Cruz takes aim at Alabama vasectomy bill: 'Yikes' 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 FlakeMcSally ties Democratic rival Kelly to Sanders in new ad McSally launches 2020 campaign Sinema will vote to convict Trump 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 ThuneMcConnell tees up votes on two abortion bills Senate votes to rein in Trump's power to attack Iran As many as eight GOP senators expected to vote to curb Trump's power to attack Iran 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 CornynTrump Medicaid proposal sparks bipartisan warnings Senate braces for fight over impeachment whistleblower testimony Booker, Cornyn introduce bill to fund school nutrition programs 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 looms as flashpoint in Alabama Senate battle Alabama Senate contender hits Sessions in new ad: 'Hillary still ain't in jail' The Hill's Campaign Report: Rising Klobuchar, Buttigieg face test in diverse states MORE (R) beat former Sen. Luther StrangeLuther Johnson StrangeThe biggest political upsets of the decade State 'certificate of need' laws need to go GOP frets over nightmare scenario for Senate primaries 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 TillisDemocratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Ernst endorses bipartisan Grassley-Wyden bill to lower drug prices 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 McSallyDemocratic Senate campaign arm raised more than .5 million in January On the Trail: Senate GOP hopefuls tie themselves to Trump Trump knocks Democrats at rally: Bloomberg 'getting pounded' 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.”