WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Bitter Republican U.S. Senate races in West Virginia and Indiana featuring candidates who have fought to prove their loyalty to President Donald Trump will highlight a slate of high-stakes party primaries in four states on Tuesday.
Voters in Ohio and North Carolina also pick candidates on Tuesday for November’s congressional elections, when Democrats must pick up two seats in the Senate and 23 in the House of Representative to recapture control of Congress and blunt Trump’s agenda.
All four of the states holding primaries were won by Trump in 2016, and Republicans have made Democratic incumbents Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana – states that Trump won by double-digit margins – two of their top U.S. Senate targets in November.
But Republican Senate prospects in either state could be hurt by bruising party primaries that have seen the top contenders battle to show who is closest to Trump or less like a conventional Washington politician.
Trump waded into the West Virginia race on Monday to urge Republicans to reject former coal executive Don Blankenship, who was released from prison last year after serving time for safety violations in a 2010 disaster that killed 29 miners.
Trump said he feared Blankenship, who has cast himself as an anti-establishment figure like the president, could not defeat Manchin in November. Trump expressed a preference for either of Blankenship’s top rivals, U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins or state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
“Remember Alabama,” Trump warned voters, recalling the Democratic victory in a special Senate election last year in the deeply conservative state after Republicans nominated Roy Moore, accused of sexual harassment and assault of teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
Blankenship has attacked Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, accusing him of undermining Trump, creating jobs for “China people” and running TV ads highlighting the Taiwanese heritage of McConnell’s wife, drawing widespread condemnation.
“I will say, all the media attention isn’t hurting him at all,” Patrick Hickey, a political scientist at West Virginia University, said of Blankenship. “There is a real sense here that career politicians are only out for themselves.”
In Indiana, the top three Republican contenders to challenge Donnelly have also sharply criticized one another while praising Trump. U.S. Representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita, longtime rivals, and self-funding businessman Mike Braun, have traded personal insults.
“There is absolutely no daylight between them on any issues,” said Marjorie Hershey, professor of political science at Indiana University. “The race has been almost entirely personal attacks.”
But Braun, a former state legislator who has spent more than $5 million of his own money on the race, has made headway portraying the two members of Congress as indistinguishable “swamp creatures” who are products of Washington.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have already scheduled a campaign event in Indiana on Thursday, indicating the priority that the White House is putting on the Indiana race – and their willingness to back whoever emerges from the primary.
In Ohio, liberal Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown is another top Republican target. U.S. Representative Jim Renacci won Trump’s endorsement and is considered the favorite for the Republican Senate nomination over Cleveland-area investment banker Michael Gibbons.
Gibbons filed a defamation lawsuit against Renacci, alleging his campaign falsely claimed Gibbons was anti-Trump.
Democrats also have a competitive primary to succeed Republican Governor John Kasich. Richard Cordray, the former head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is facing Dennis Kucinich, the former Cleveland mayor, member of Congress and presidential candidate, in a battle of liberal favorites.
Cordray has received the endorsement of liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren, while Kucinich has the backing of key allies of 2016 Democratic presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders.
On the Republican side in the governor’s race, state Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor will fight for the Republican nomination.
Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney