The spring 2018 primary season began in earnest Tuesday, as voters in Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, and North Carolina went to the polls. And overall, it was a consequential night of voting, but not a shocking one. In the highest-profile races, the attention-getting outsiders for the most part went down to defeat in favor of more mainstream choices.
For the Senate, we now know the Republican nominees for three key races, who will challenge three Democratic senators representing states Trump won. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin will face off with Republican state Attorney General Pat Morrisey in West Virginia, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly will go up against Republican Mike Braun in Indiana, and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown will face Republican Rep. Jim Renacci in Ohio. These are all outcomes that the dubiously nicknamed “Cocaine Mitch” McConnell is happy with.
The matchup for the governor’s race in Ohio, one of the most important ones in the country, has also now been settled. Democrat Richard Cordray will run against Republican Mike DeWine; both establishment favorites triumphed in their respective primaries. This will be a crucial contest for the next redistricting — and, meanwhile, the state’s voters also approved a moderate reform to that redistricting process.
Winner: Cocaine Mitch
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wasn’t on the ballot today, but his reputation and influence were on the line in West Virginia’s Senate race.
Don Blankenship, a former coal company CEO convicted of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws after a disaster that killed 29 miners, was running for the GOP nod to take on Sen. Joe Manchin, and McConnell and the Republican establishment desperately hoped he wouldn’t win.
So Blankenship hit back, with attacks that ranged from reasonable (he said McConnell is part of the “swamp”) to racist (he attacked McConnell’s in-laws by dubbing them “his China family”) to ridiculous (he called McConnell “Cocaine Mitch” for factually suspect reasons).
Blankenship dominated headlines toward the end of the race, and Republicans feared they had another Roy Moore on their hands, in what would have been another major humiliation for McConnell.
But in the end, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the primary, and Blankenship ended up in last place among the three major candidates — in a resounding victory for McConnell.
Winner: basic human decency
Really, though, Blankenship’s fairly resounding defeat is also a win for basic human decency. The man is a convicted criminal whose corrupt and mismanaged company was implicated in a disaster that led to many deaths. He then tried to make a comeback by embracing racism and idiotic conspiracy theories (he said the government caused the disaster at his mine and framed him for it). The 20 percent or so of the vote he got is still too much, but his last-place finish is a fitting conclusion — let’s hope it’s a conclusion, at least — of the political career of Don Blankenship.
Winner: the Democratic establishment
Democrats lost control of the Ohio governor’s mansion back in 2010 and hope to finally reclaim it this year, particularly because the winner of November’s gubernatorial race will be in office for the next redistricting, in 2021.
But the party approached Tuesday’s primary with some trepidation — because Dennis Kucinich was on the ballot.
Kucinich, a former member of Congress who ran for president in 2004 and 2008, has long been a left-wing gadfly for the Democratic Party. But he’s also sometimes shown a tendency to defend Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and even has claimed to have seen UFOs. Establishment Democrats feared that if Kucinich won, their chances of retaking the governorship would fall drastically.
Challenging Kucinich was Richard Cordray, the former (and first fully confirmed) director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, under Barack Obama. Cordray, the former attorney general of Ohio, stepped down from the CFPB last November to run for the state’s governorship. Democrats viewed him as a top recruit, but his early polling was tepid, and some feared Kucinich might have a shot.
In the end, though, Cordray won by a landslide. Now, the former Ohio attorney general will face the current Ohio attorney general, Republican Mike DeWine, in the high-stakes gubernatorial contest this fall.
Loser: Indiana’s Democratic senator, Joe Donnelly
The incumbent Democratic senator from Indiana, Joe Donnelly, is widely viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democratic senators running for reelection this year.
The moderate, anti-abortion senator won his first term in 2012 by defeating far-right GOP nominee Richard Mourdock, who blundered his way to defeat by claiming pregnancy from rape was something “God intended.” Republicans have long believed that win was a fluke. Furthermore, Indiana has moved sharply to the right in recent years. Obama narrowly won the state in 2008, then lost it by about 10 points in 2012, and Hillary Clinton lost it by 19 points in 2016.
So when the GOP nomination fight to face Donnelly devolved into a remarkably vicious and negative contest, the senator and his team were naturally thrilled. Tara Golshan described how all three candidates ended up with a catchy negative nickname — “Lyin’ Todd” Rokita, “Missing” Luke Messer, and “Tax Hike Mike” Braun. It was genuinely unclear whom Donnelly would prefer to run against.
But the eventual GOP winner, business owner Mike Braun, has some real strengths. He’s rich and can self-fund his campaign against Donnelly. Furthermore, unlike his two rivals, Rokita and Messer, Braun can’t be attacked as a creature of the unpopular Republican-controlled Congress.
Donnelly’s hope is that Braun is less vetted than Rokita or Messer. Perhaps, for instance, he will be vulnerable to attacks on his business practices. But this race surely won’t be anything remotely resembling a cakewalk. Donnelly’s in for the fight of his life.
Loser: House Republicans seeking higher office
With Republicans having controlled the House of Representatives since 2011, many of their incumbents are getting antsy and dreaming of becoming senators or governors.
But there’s a problem: That GOP-controlled House in Washington, DC, isn’t popular. And state politicians or outsider entrepreneurs may well seem like better choices to drain the swamp.
There was, as mentioned, Braun’s defeat of Reps. Rokita and Messer in Indiana. Morrisey, West Virginia’s attorney general, beat Rep. Evan Jenkins in that state too. Rep. Robert Pittenger of North Carolina couldn’t even hold on to his current seat in the face of a right-wing primary challenge from Mark Harris.
The sole bright spot for House Republicans who sought higher office was Rep. Jim Renacci’s victory in the Ohio Senate primary over banker Mike Gibbons. Even there, though, Renacci starts as a clear underdog to Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.
Winner: supporters of moderate gerrymandering reform
A strange thing happened during Ohio’s primary: One of the most pro-Republican-gerrymandered states in the country put an actual bipartisan deal to reform gerrymandering in front of its voters — and it passed, easily.
Previously, Ohio’s once-a-decade redistricting for its congressional seats was controlled by the legislature, with the governor’s approval. That meant that if one party controlled the governorship and both chambers of the legislature, they could more or less gerrymander to their hearts’ content, which Republicans did last time around.
But Republicans and Democrats in the state came together and struck a deal that put some checks on the majority party’s power. Under it, the legislature has to try to come up with a new map supported by a big bipartisan majority. If several attempts at this fail, a one-party map can still pass, but it would expire after four years, rather than the current 10. Additionally, legislators are instructed not to draw maps that “unduly” favor one party or incumbents.
This is, to be clear, a moderate reform at best, not a radical one. It leaves redistricting in the hands of politicians, rather than handing it over to an independent commission, as some reformers preferred. And some Democrats have questioned whether this compromise meant sacrificing the opportunity for greater and more meaningful anti-gerrymandering measures. But even a moderate gerrymandering reform has been a rare thing this decade.