Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell represent very different brands of the Republican Party ruling Washington. But both leaders scored victories this week in their bids retain or even grow their control of the Senate.
Tuesday’s nominations of Patrick Morrisey in West Virginia, Jim Renacci in Ohio, and Mike Braun in Indiana give Republicans three qualified nominees to face Democratic senators in states Trump carried, advancing potential allies to the president and Senate majority leader.
“It’s just important to get viable candidates through the primaries which help advance the president’s agenda,” said Chris Pack, communications director for McConnell-aligned groups including Senate Leadership Fund and American Crossroads. “I think regardless of personal style, there does seem to be a fairly uniform Republican agenda.”
Trump weighed in directly in two of the races, and all three nominees embraced all or part of a self-styled political outsider’s message.
Yet connections to the two unpopular Republican leaders create pitfalls for candidates running in a year in which Democrats are seeing increased enthusiasm. And the fallout from contentious primaries—which Republican leadership did not take steps to prevent—creates openings for moderate Democrats attempting to hold their seats.
“The combination of the personal liabilities that have been raised about each of the Republican nominees as well as the fact that they have all endorsed an agenda like their party’s health care plan … means that they are limping into the general election badly out of step with moderate and independent voters who will decide these races in the fall,” said David Bergstein, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
But embracing the Trump brand can help the GOP candidates, even self-funded ones, secure much-needed support as they run against well-liked incumbents with multimillion-dollar cash-on-hand advantages.
For example, Eric Beach of the pro-Trump political nonprofit Great America Alliance on Wednesday said the group would “have a heavy, heavy hand” in West Virginia and Indiana’s general elections after supporting Morrisey’s and Braun’s primary campaigns. The group plans to launch “multimillion-dollar independent expenditures in both states” around “early June,” Beach said.
McConnell’s most direct involvement in Tuesday’s primaries was in West Virginia, where a group affiliated with the Kentuckian’s allies spent $1.3 million opposing Don Blankenship.
Republicans feared that nominating the coal baron, who served a year in prison following the death of 29 miners in a 2010 explosion at his Upper Big Branch Mine, would make it harder to unseat moderate Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. Trump, at McConnell’s request, also weighed in less than 24 hours before the West Virginia primary polls opened. He tweeted Monday that Blankenship “can’t win the General Election.”
But McConnell also had personal reasons to stop Blankenship, who made opposition to the majority leader a cornerstone of his campaign by airing TV ads against “Cocaine Mitch,” the “swamp captain” who he said ran “false and negative ads against me.” (After Morrisey’s victory, McConnell’s team tweeted, “Thanks for playing, Don,” along with an image of McConnell superimposed on an actor playing Pablo Escobar in Netflix’s Narcos.)
For his part, Trump made an outright endorsement only in Ohio, backing Rep. Jim Renacci to face Sen. Sherrod Brown late last month because “I need Jim very badly to help our agenda.” The president campaigned for Renacci days before the primary, urging voters to support the “really terrific” former financial consultant who “understands what it takes to make America great again.”
Renacci gave his campaign $4 million to help run TV ads to tell voters he “knows the Trump agenda works for Ohio,” including on taxes and border security.
“His endorsement in Ohio was just invaluable,” said Renacci consultant James Slepian. “He’s popular overall among Ohioans, but his numbers among Republicans are just sky-high.”
Brown campaign manager Justin Barasky in a statement Tuesday didn’t mention Trump, who won the state by 8 points. But he called out “Mitch McConnell and Washington Republicans” as allies to Renacci, who “has spent his career finding ways to benefit himself rather than the people of Ohio.”
Candidates have been slow to embrace McConnell directly. A spokeswoman for Morrisey on Wednesday confirmed he has not committed to voting for McConnell for majority leader. While Renacci hasn’t said if he’d back McConnell for another term at the helm, Slepian said, “I have no reason to believe he wouldn’t.”
“I’d be hard pressed to find a candidate across the country that’s really supporting Mitch McConnell,” said Chris Hayden, communications director for Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic group, “and that’s because he’s really unpopular in these primaries.”
Morrisey in his victory speech Tuesday ignored McConnell but invited Trump “to come back as many times as you can between now and November.” Trump won West Virginia by 42 points in 2016.
“I told the president, ‘You don’t need to come back to West Virginia,’” Manchin told WJLS on Wednesday. “It’s nice to have you but not during election cycle.”
In Indiana, Mike Braun easily defeated two members of Congress, Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer. Braun, a self-funding former state representative, campaigned on his status as a political outsider and ran one spot in which he proclaimed, “President Trump was right. We need fewer career politicians in Washington.”
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, a former Indiana governor, are traveling to the state Thursday for a rare joint rally on Braun’s behalf in hopes of unifying Republicans behind their nominee after a contentious primary campaign in which it was revealed that the auto-parts distributor relied on importing goods from China.
“I am anticipating that there will be certainly some unity discussion that Republicans—and all the folks who have supported the president and vice president—need to come together to support Mike Braun to give him another ally in the U.S. Senate,” said Kyle Hupfer, the chair of the Indiana Republican Party.
But Democrats think there are vulnerabilities in embracing Trump and Republicans in Congress too much. Braun’s November opponent, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly, in a conference call with reporters Tuesday said voters would decide “who will be an independent voice for Indiana,” including on “the McConnell tax cuts” that “would increase the cost of health care.”
“My job is not to be a cheerleader for the president,” Donnelly said. “My job is not to be a cheerleader for a party leader or a party. My job is to work nonstop for Hoosiers.”