The following Bottom Lines have been updated following this week's Senate primaries in Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia
In 2012, Democrat Joe Donnelly, who was then in the U.S. House, was considered an underdog in this Senate race where he was supposed to face long-term GOP U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, but Lugar lost his primary and Donnelly’s opponent became then-state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Mourdock won with the support of tea party activists, but stumbled out of the primary with a series of impolitic remarks about partisanship, abortion and rape, and never recovered. So even while then-President Obama lost the state, Donnelly defeated Mourdock, 50 percent to 44 percent. In 2016, President Donald Trump carried the state by 19 points while Republicans also won an open U.S. Senate seat, the Governor’s office and six of eight congressional districts. This puts Donnelly high on Republicans’ target list this cycle. Republicans nominated Mike Braun, a businessman who ran as a conservative outsider. At the start of the race, Braun was considered a dark horse, but U.S. Reps. Luke Messer and Todd Rokita spent much of the race attacking each other, allowing Braun and his outsider message to become a viable alternative. In some ways, Braun may prove to be best candidate Republicans could hope for. But, while Braun may not have a congressional voting record (although he was a member of the state legislature for three years), he wasn’t well vetted during the primary, leaving that task to Democrats. However, even with a good political climate for Democrats, it is hard to see how Braun does not give Donnelly a very competitive race this cycle. The contest is in the Toss Up column.
This has turned out to be the rematch that wasn’t. Republican state Treasurer Josh Mandel announced in December of 2016 that he would again challenge Democrat U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2018. In 2012, Brown beat Mandel, 51 percent to 45 percent, with an independent candidate taking the remaining 5 percent. In truth, it didn’t appear that Mandel’s candidacy was catching fire, but it became a moot point in early January when he exited the race. GOP U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, who was running for his party’s gubernatorial nomination, switched races. He won the May 8 primary with 47 percent to 32 percent for investment banker Michael Gibbons and 13 percent for small business owner Melissa Ackison; two other candidates split 8 percent. Renacci was expected to win the nomination with a much higher margin. The reality, though, is that voters didn’t know much about any of these candidates. For his part, Brown remains the progressive populist that has defined his career, and still has support among blue-collar Democrats, many of whom abandoned the party in last year’s presidential race. The race is in the Lean Democrat column, and the onus is on Renacci to make this more competitive.
On the one hand, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin should be the most vulnerable incumbent up this cycle given that he is a Democrat representing a state that President Donald Trump carried by 42 points. On the other, Manchin has accumulated a very moderate voting record and seems in sync with voters, and thus has solid job approval and favorable ratings. He was elected to the Senate in a special election in 2010 with 54 percent, and then won a full term in 2012 with 61 percent. Republicans are intent on testing theory of presidential performance – that which party wins a state in the presidential contest plays a major role in determining the outcome of a Senate race in the next election cycle. Republicans dodged a ballistic missile when former coal company CEO Don Blankenship came in third in the May 8 primary. Blankenship’s candidacy appeared to have gained momentum, but for countless reasons he would have been a gift to Manchin and Democrats, and probably would have guaranteed Manchin’s re-election. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the nomination with 35 percent to 29 percent for U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, and 20 percent for Blankenship; three other candidates combined for 16 percent. In truth, Jenkins would have been the strongest general election candidate as Morrisey spent part of his professional life in New Jersey where he made an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. House in 2000. He then moved to Washington where he was a lobbyist. This does not mean that Morrisey can’t or won’t give Manchin a very competitive race, only that Democrats have plenty of fodder with which to attack him. The contest is in the Toss Up column.