Republicans draw conflicting lessons from early primaries: ANALYSIS

PHOTO: President Donald Trump and West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey during a visit to White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia, April 5, 2018.PlayKevin Lamarque/Reuters
WATCH GOP, Democrats score wins in high-stakes primaries

It marked a good night for the GOP establishment, yet a terrible night for sitting Republican members of the House.

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Republicans avoided their biggest potential disaster in a key Senate race, while Democrats saw their own promising field of candidates lock into place.

And while President Donald Trump emerged from the first batch of primaries with clear political victories, the same can’t be said for those seeking to borrow and build on his campaign playbook.

Tuesday’s primaries, in four states that all supported Trump in 2016 but are true 2018 battlegrounds, delivered a set of diverse and seemingly contradictory messages that only hint at the uncertainties ahead.

PHOTO: West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, as he speaks at his campaign headquarters, May 8, 2018, in Kearnesville, W.Va. Ron Agnir/The Journal via AP
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, as he speaks at his campaign headquarters, May 8, 2018, in Kearnesville, W.Va.

As tests of voter enthusiasm and ability to field solid candidates in key races, both Democrats and Republicans can claim success in vital regions of the country.

But if there’s a dominant theme so far in primary voting, it’s for the palpable desire for radical change – yes, again – coursing even through the party in full control of Washington.

The disparate storylines emerging six months before the midterms speak to the challenges all candidates and political entities will have in navigating a turbulent electoral landscape.

Trump, as if on cue, declared on Twitter that it was a “great night” for the Republican Party.

“Tremendous voter energy and excitement, and all candidates are those who have a great chance of winning in November,” the president tweeted.

Yet Trump’s biggest win came in ensuring a loss. Don Blankenship, the convicted former coal baron who ran a racially charged campaign targeting Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his family, finished a distant third – with the West Virginia GOP Senate nomination instead landing with the state’s attorney general.

Blankenship said Trump’s unusual late plea for voters to support anyone but him most likely made the difference.

“Perhaps, President Trump has been successful,” Blankenship told reporters as the size of his loss became clear.

Blankenship’s claim to be “Trumpier than Trump” – and the conspiracy theories and outlandish accusations he seemed to back that claim up with – didn’t serve him well with voters in the end.

PHOTO: Republican U.S. Senate candidate Don Blankenship speaks to his supporters during the primary election in Charleston, West Virginia, May 8, 2018.Lexi Browning/Reuters
Republican U.S. Senate candidate Don Blankenship speaks to his supporters during the primary election in Charleston, West Virginia, May 8, 2018.

But in Indiana, the Republican Senate nomination did land with a self-funding businessman who mocked his two main opponents – both sitting House members – as creatures of the establishment who look, vote, and even dress alike.

Those two failed candidates are two of four GOP House members who, because of Tuesday’s primaries, will be out of jobs after this term. Rep. Evan Jenkins, a Democrat-turned-Republican who ousted a longtime Democratic incumbent to take his House seat in West Virginia just four years ago, also fell short in his Senate race.

And in North Carolina, Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger became the first incumbent to lose a primary in either party this year, with a former Baptist pastor who narrowly lost the primary two years ago coming out on top. That outcome could put another House seat on the Democrats’ potential map.

Mark Harris overcame a massive spending disadvantage to win the GOP nomination in large part by portraying Pittenger as a creature of “the swamp.” He hammered the incumbent over his vote earlier this year for the $1.3 trillion spending package – a bill championed by GOP leadership and signed, if somewhat reluctantly, by Trump.

Six months before Election Day, Republican primaries have shown little room available for candidates who aren’t behind the president. Many are at least implicitly taking the Blankenship path of claiming to be purer in their Trumpism than even Trump.

That has not significantly weakened the GOP candidate field, at least not yet. But Republicans know that leaving the friendly confines of GOP primaries will mark different challenges in the fall.

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