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Blankenship vs. McConnell heads to dramatic finish

Republicans went to the polls on Tuesday to choose nominees in three key Senate races that will determine which party controls the chamber next year.

But the GOP was facing the very real prospect that its standard-bearer in a state President Donald Trump carried by 42 percentage points will be a man who was a resident of a federal halfway house in Phoenix this time last year and is still on supervised release.

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The marquee election of the first multi-state primary day of 2018 is the GOP Senate contest in West Virginia, where former coal magnate Don Blankenship boasted late momentum in the race to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November. Blankenship was convicted in 2015 of conspiring to skirt mine standards after 29 miners were killed at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch facility; Blankenship was Massey’s CEO at the time.

Trump, in a tweet on Monday, told Republicans in West Virginia that Blankenship can’t beat Manchin in the general election and urged them to back either Rep. Evan Jenkins or state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey instead. It reflected the widespread belief among Republicans in Washington that the party would squander one of its best pickup opportunities if Blankenship won the nomination.

Blankenship guaranteed victory on Monday. “I think it’s still over,” he said after Trump‘s tweet. “It probably tightens it a point or two, but I don’t think it matters much.”

Primaries are also being held Tuesday in Indiana, North Carolina and Ohio.

In Indiana, Republicans are picking a candidate to square off against Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in the fall. The front-runner in the primary appears to be businessman Mike Braun, who is facing Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita.

In Ohio, Republican Rep. Jim Renacci received Trump’s endorsement in the contest against Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Renacci is favored over businessman Mike Gibbons, who campaigned with Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) last week.

Of the four states holding primaries, only Ohio has a gubernatorial race on the ballot; Gov. John Kasich is term-limited. On the GOP side, state Attorney General Mike DeWine, the former senator, has the state Republican Party’s endorsement over Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor.

In congressional races, there are primaries in Ohio’s 12th District, which was vacated earlier this year by former Rep. Pat Tiberi. Tiberi is backing state Sen. Troy Balderson, including buying time for TV ads out of his own campaign account. But hard-line conservatives, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), are mostly lined up behind Melanie Leneghan, a local town official in the district.

(Because Tiberi resigned, there are primaries both for the general election in November, and also for a special election set for August for the rest of Tiberi’s term.)

There is also a competitive GOP primary to replace Renacci, who is vacating his northern Ohio district to run for Senate.

There aren’t any statewide races on the ballot in North Carolina. But as in past elections, GOP Reps. Walter Jones and Robert Pittenger find themselves targeted in intra-party fights. Jones faces Scott Dacey, a lobbyist and local elected official. Pittenger, whose district has been marked by Democrats as a possible pickup opportunity in the general election, faces a rematch with Mark Harris, who fell 134 votes short in his bid to unseat Pittenger in 2016.

Don Blankenship is pictured. | AP Photo

In West Virginia, there are seven Republicans seeking the GOP nomination to replace Jenkins in the House, in a race that has turned negative in recent weeks.

There are seven Republicans on the ballot in the race to replace Rokita in his district west of Indianapolis — including Steve Braun, the brother of Senate candidate Mike Braun. And the apparent frontrunner in the GOP primary for Messer’s House seat is Greg Pence, Vice President Mike Pence’s brother.

But it’s the West Virginia test that looms as a critical test for the GOP. If Blankenship prevails on Tuesday, Republicans will be forced to reckon with the campaign he ran, including television ads that referred to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) as “Cocaine Mitch” and said he has a “China family.” (McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, has Chinese parents.)

Asked Tuesday in the Capitol about Blankenship and whether his comments were racist, McConnell demurred. “We’re going to find out what happens in West Virginia, and I may have more to say about that tomorrow,” he said.

Alex Isenstadt reported from West Virginia.

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