Against the Grain

Senate Republicans Are Blowing Opportunities

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has taken a hands-off approach in primaries this year. That passivity will come back to haunt them if weaker candidates lose winnable races in November.

President Trump smiles at an April 5 roundtable discussion on tax policy in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. He is joined by (from left): Rep. Evan Jenkins, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and Davis Trust Company CEO Hugh Hitchcock.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
May 1, 2018, 2:39 p.m.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell worked tirelessly to avoid the prospect of primary challenges against sitting senators, largely succeeding with that task. But the party’s Senate committee has adopted a different strategy in other primaries, preferring to stay out of contested Republican races instead of working behind the scenes to anoint a favored challenger.

That hands-off decision by the National Republican Senatorial Committee will have enormous implications in the battle for the Senate this year. If Republicans lose their majority because weaker-than-expected nominees emerge from crowded fields, there will be a lot of grumbling about why Republicans didn’t do more to define the races to their advantage early on.

Republican operatives are starting to second-guess the committee’s strategy most intently in West Virginia, where Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey are locked in a very tight primary to face Sen. Joe Manchin—with convicted coal baron Don Blankenship running a distant third. An NRSC spokesman said the party believes that Jenkins and Morrisey are equally capable of defeating Manchin in the general election.

What’s alarming Republicans about the race is that Democratic officials have drawn the opposite conclusion—that Jenkins is a much greater threat than Morrisey to Manchin’s reelection prospects. A Democratic super PAC (Duty and Country) affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is spending $1.26 million on a TV ad attacking Jenkins, while a similar spot the group created against Morrisey is hardly airing on television. The ads are ostensibly designed to boost Blankenship, but their strategy is actually focused on preventing Jenkins from emerging as the GOP nominee.

Democrats view Jenkins as more formidable because he’s a former Democrat with a record of toppling an iconic congressman when he first ran for Congress in 2014. His district, filled with the type of conservative Democrats who supported Trump, is the pivotal region in the race against Manchin. Jenkins recently landed an endorsement from the state Chamber of Commerce, which had endorsed Manchin in every election since 1996.

By contrast, Morrisey is well-regarded among conservatives for his lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency during the Obama administration, but his political resume is spottier. He was the first Republican to be elected state attorney general in West Virginia in decades—winning reelection in 2016—but also underwhelmed in a House race in New Jersey in his first bid for office.

More significantly, strategists from both parties also believe that revelations about Morrisey’s lobbying history will become a major vulnerability in a general election. His wife worked as a lobbyist for Cardinal Health, the state’s leading supplier of prescription painkillers. The issue of opioid addiction ranked as the most important issue for West Virginia Republican voters, according to a recent Fox News poll. It’s easy to imagine a Democratic attack ad hammering him on this possible conflict of interest. Manchin has his own political problems over family members with ethics issues—his daughter is CEO of a drug company accused of inflating the cost of a lifesaving pen that treats allergic reactions—but facing Morrisey would likely mute those problems.

Republicans sympathetic to the NRSC’s primary dilemma maintain that there wasn’t much the party could do in West Virginia. Jenkins struggled to raise money for the Senate race early on, prompting questions about his preparedness for the statewide race. And both candidates are accomplished officeholders with a deep roster of allies, making it challenging to convince anyone to step aside voluntarily. But if the party truly believed that one candidate was more electable than another, it’s not hard to imagine a plan to clear the field. President Trump could single-handedly change the dynamic of an open GOP primary with one tweet.

After all, party officials pushed aside Rep. Ann Wagner to anoint state Attorney General Josh Hawley in Missouri’s Senate race. And officials rallied around Rep. Marsha Blackburn in Tennessee, even after Sen. Bob Corker started to reconsider his decision to retire.

Republicans face a similarly tricky situation in Indiana, where a laissez-faire approach to the primary is leading to a surprise outcome: businessman and former state legislator Mike Braun emerging as the clear front-runner against two GOP congressmen. The unexpected result could play to the GOP’s advantage: Braun, a political outsider, has the personal wealth and populist credentials to draw a sharp contrast against Sen. Joe Donnelly.

But unlike his two GOP rivals, Braun’s record hasn’t been aggressively vetted, creating the risk that nominating an outsider could lead to unwelcome surprises later. Indeed, the Associate Press broke a story Wednesday detailing an inhospitable working climate at Braun’s company, calling him “a boss who has overworked and underpaid employees.”

Democrats don’t have the same degree of internecine fighting on the Senate side. Party officials cleared the field for Rep. Jacky Rosen in Nevada, boosted Rep. Kyrsten Sinema in Arizona, and persuaded a fresh-faced challenger to former Gov. Phil Bredesen in Tennessee to drop out. Even though these Democratic Senate recruits are more moderate than what their party base demands, they’ve managed to avoid the messy intraparty warfare that’s been all too common among Republicans.

That success comes down to the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that makes a huge difference in impacting close races—with the Senate majority very much up for grabs. Right now, Senate Republicans are all too content to be passive observers of their own fate, while their Democratic counterparts are actively pressing their advantage.

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