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Conservative preview: 5 things to watch in today's primary elections

Conservative Review

After a brief respite, it's time to get back in the swing of things with another round of primary elections. Buckle up, folks, there are primary elections today in four states as Republican voters head to the polls in Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia to nominate GOP candidates for office in November. Here are five things Conservative Review is watching for in today's primary elections:

1. Will the anti-McConnell strategy work in West Virginia?

The West Virginia U.S. Senate primary has national Republicans sitting on the edges of their seats as controversial ex-convict and coal baron Don Blankenship has surged in the polls in the final weeks of the race. He's differentiated himself from his two primary opponents, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., by being aggressively and explicitly anti-Mitch McConnell.

Blankenship has good reason hold a grudge against McConnell — the Senate majority leader's allies have run ads against his campaign for fear his history as CEO of Massey Energy during a mine explosion that killed 29 miners will sink their chances to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. McConnell, in turn, has good reason to hold a grudge against Blankenship, who has called McConnell the "swamp captain" of the U.S. Senate and used racially suggestive language criticizing McConnell's "China family" and financial ties to China.

Morrisey's consensus conservative candidacy and Jenkins' more establishment-friendly campaign have been lost in all the noise caused by Blankenship's bomb-throwing. But President Donald Trump has stepped into the race, urging voters to reject him.


In Alabama, GOP voters ignored Trump to nominate Roy Moore over McConnell's candidate, Luther Strange, only to see Moore's candidacy implode after allegations of sexual misconduct with minors emerged, leading to Democrat Sen. Doug Jones' victory. Will they ignore the president to vote for the "craziest son of a bitch in the race" again? And will that cost Republicans a winnable Senate seat in November?

2. Who will win the most expensive Senate primary in America? 

The Indiana Republican Senate primary has been called the most expensive and nastiest primary in the nation. House Republicans Rep. Luke Messer and Rep. Todd Rokita have been trading negative attack ads for months as each tries to outdo the other to be the most pro-Trump Republican in the race. Meanwhile, former state representative and self-funding businessman Mike Braun has seemingly come "out of nowhere" to position himself as the adult Washington outsider in the race caught between two nearly identical career politicians. Braun's ad using literal cardboard cutouts of Rokita and Messer accentuated this point.

Advertising has defined this race. According to USA Today, Braun has spent more than $3.1 million on radio, broadcast, and cable TV ads between January and April, while Rokita and Messer have each spent around $1.26 million.

On substance, each candidate is running as a pro-Trump conservative, but their records don’t always match their rhetoric. Braun was a Democratic voter until 2012 and has been criticized for voting for a 10-cent-per-gallon state gas tax increase. Messer voted for the $1.3 trillion omnibus bill that funded Democrat priorities. Rokita voted against the omnibus, but he voted in favor of the procedural rule that advanced the massive spending increase. 

All told this is a race between three men, each with questionable -- at best -- conservative bona fides, vying to win by knockout with negative ads. A lack of polling leaves the results of this hotly contested race very much in question.

3. Will these two Ohio women join the boys' club in the House Freedom Caucus? 

If you watch any of the regular cable news TV appearances by House Freedom Caucus conservatives, you may have noticed that most, if not all, of its publicly identified members are men. The identities of HFC members are generally kept secret, so it's impossible to say for sure, but it seems like the Freedom Caucus is currently a boys' club. That may change Tuesday if Freedom Caucus-backed candidates Liberty Township Trustee Melanie Leneghan and state Rep. Christina Hagan win their primary elections in Ohio.

Leneghan is a candidate for the special election in Ohio's 12th Congressional District, the seat vacated by retiring Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Ohio. Her declared support for the Freedom Caucus' opposition to the $1.3 trillion omnibus, tough opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants, and avowed libertarian belief that government spying on American citizens is an "abomination" won her the endorsements of Freedom Caucus chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and the political arm of the HFC, the House Freedom Fund. She's running in a crowded field as one of 10 Republican candidates. The special election to serve the remainder of Tiberi's term will be held on August 7, 2018, and the winner will be on the ballot again in the November general election.

Over in Ohio's 16th Congressional District, Hagan is one of three candidates vying to win the Republican nomination to replace Rep. Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, who is running for U.S. Senate. She is the youngest woman ever elected to the Ohio state house, an avowed Trump supporter, and she has publicly committed to join the House Freedom Caucus if elected to Congress. She's been endorsed by Meadows, Jordan, and the conservative grassroots organization FreedomWorks. Her chief rival is Anthony Gonzalez, who has been endorsed by the moderate-to-liberal Republican Main Street Partnership.

4. Can social conservative Mark Harris oust an incumbent in North Carolina? 

There's a rematch In North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, where staunch social conservative Mark Harris is challenging incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., again after narrowly losing the 2016 Republican primary by a little more than 100 votes.

Harris' claim to fame is as leader of the 2012 Amendment One campaign, which successfully passed an amendment to North Carolina's constitution that reaffirmed the state ban on same-sex marriages — a ban that was struck down by the Supreme Court's Obergefell decision. Urging voters to "drain the swamp," Harris, the former senior pastor of Charlotte's First Baptist Church, has criticized Pittenger as too liberal. Pittenger in response has gone after Harris for supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign instead of Trump's campaign, accusing Harris of working to "stop a Trump presidency."

Harris has strong grassroots support, built from the remains of the Amendment One campaign, and the close 2016 race would suggest this primary could be competitive, but in March, a poll of likely Republican primary voters showed Pittenger with a 32-point lead over Harris. Tonight we'll find out if that poll was accurate.


The last statewide primary election was in Texas back in March, where talk of a "blue wave" in 2018 was seemingly put to rest when Republican voters showed up in numbers vastly greater than Democrats at the ballot box. But that was in Texas, a deep red state. The primary turnout in more moderate places like Ohio and Indiana, where Democratic senators are incumbents, will be a better indicator of whether the perceived enthusiasm gap between Republicans and Democrats is real.

If Democrats have a stronger primary turnout than the GOP, it will show that Republicans should be worried about their chances to retain control of Congress in November.

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