Every election seems to create a media feeding frenzy, these days, and the appetite for analyzing every result has become so insatiable that even primary results are dissected for possible clues as to what the American electorate is thinking. Tuesday was no exception. Primaries in four key states sparked an orgy of speculation over what the outcomes indicated for the approaching midterms. What did we really learn, though? Nothing that we probably didn’t already know, is, perhaps, the best answer. Except for maybe one thing: Being the Trumpiest candidate plays well in some states but, in others, not so much.
That isn’t to say that primary voters rejected the Trump agenda; no Republican contenders won their respective contests by running against the president’s policies. It was more a lesson in personality. There’s only one Trump and he sits in the Oval Office. Portraying oneself as more Trump than Trump isn’t the magic formula for success if, in the eyes of the voters, you are just not up to the job.
Being The Trumpiest is Not Enough
Don Blankenship learned this painful lesson in West Virginia. Competing to take on struggling incumbent Senator Joe Manchin (D) in November, the former coal baron tried hard to emulate the president’s style and persona – thinking, it seems, that this in itself would rally voters to his banner. He even described himself as “Trumpier than Trump,” projected the image of a blunt-spoken, no-nonsense outsider who was going to wade into the DC swamp with an industrial vacuum cleaner. Further copying Trump’s aggressive approach to opponents, he even came up with a nickname for Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell; dubbing him “Cocaine Mitch” – a reference to a vague tale of drug smuggling aboard a vessel owned by a shipping company connected to McConnell’s wife.
As unpopular as McConnell is among many GOP voters, however, neither this line of attack nor Blankenship’s best Trump impersonation was enough to convince more than a fraction of West Virginia’s primary voters. All three leading candidates ran on a pro-Trump platform and the gruff Blankenship was left in the dust by the State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who won with a comfortable 34.9% and runner-up Evan Jenkins with 29.3%. Blankenship, who the president urged West Virginians to reject, failed to crack 20%.
In Indiana, businessman Mike Braun ran away with the Senate primary as his two closest rivals, Luke Messer and Todd Rokita – both incumbent Representatives – tore each other apart. Braun had been considered something of an ‘also ran’ until his opponents blew it during an unnecessarily acrimonious campaign. Braun’s victory was a relief for Republicans fighting to maintain their majority in the Senate. He claimed more than 41% of the votes, while neither Rokita, who came in second, nor Messer managed to hit 30%. In Ohio, Representative Jim Renacci, who was endorsed by Trump, won the Senate primary and will face a tough contest against incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown in November.
In primaries for House seats, Indiana State Representative James Baird won the battle to run for Rokita’s 4th district seat and Greg Pence, the vice president’s brother, scored a huge victory to claim the chance to fill Messer’s 6th district seat. Carol Miller, a strongly pro-Trump West Virginia Delegate, beat out six other contenders to run for the state’s 3rd congressional district, to be vacated by Evan Jenkins. Her chance of filling that seat in November is in little doubt; Trump’s margin of victory in the district was 49%.
In North Carolina GOP primaries for the US House of Representatives, incumbent Walter Jones secured his chance to run for re-election in the 3rd district but Representative Robert Pettinger became the first incumbent of 2018 to lose a party primary. He was narrowly beaten out by challenger Mark Harris. Ohio State Senator Troy Balderson defeated nine opponents to win the GOP primary for the state’s 12th district. In Ohio’s 16th district, Anthony Gonzalez defeated Christina Hagan and will be the Republican candidate for Jim Renacci’s seat.
It was, all things considered, a positive set of results for Republicans. Flawed candidates faded and strong contenders came through. For what little can be gleaned from a handful of primary contests, the Trump agenda appears to have won approval but, with many primaries still to come and a hugely significant midterm contest on the horizon, it should be hoped that Republican candidates learned a valuable lesson: Backing Trump is a winning strategy but trying to be Trump is not. The president is like the Highlander of movie fame – there can be only one.