Primary Previews

By Jim Ellis

2018-elections-open-seats-185May 8, 2018 — Today’s elections kick-off the prime time of primary season, with voters in four states — Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia — choosing nominees for November. Here is an outlook for each of the states:

Indiana

With no governor’s race on the ballot this year, the Republican Senate nomination campaign tops the Indiana political card, which is one of the more interesting campaigns in the country. Here, Reps. Todd Rokita (R-Brownsburg/Lafayette) and Luke Messer (R-Greensburg/Muncie) are battling former state representative and Meyer Distributing and Meyer Logistics companies’ owner Mike Braun for the right to face first-term Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in November. Donnelly has no opposition for his party nomination.

Braun has gained national notoriety for his campaign, which has strategically melded both congressmen into basically one person. The Braun Campaign ads have characterized Reps. Rokita and Messer as being part of the Washington “swamp”, concentrating negatively on their budget and trade votes, as well as casting them as professional politicians. He even goes so far as to brandish two cardboard cutouts of the congressmen where they are dressed exactly alike and says they are both lawyers who never practiced, instead spending their entire careers in politics.

Rep. Rokita is clearly attempting to secure the Republican Party’s right flank, which makes sense in a crowded Midwest state primary. He is identifying himself as the Trump-Pence candidate and echoing the type of bombastic message to which Trump voters have positively responded emphasizing “putting America first”, the 2nd Amendment, and building the wall on the US-Mexico border. Rokita casts Messer as a “never Trumper,” and Braun as a former Democrat who repeatedly supported tax hikes and voted for either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary.

Rep. Messer is also trying to move right, but seems to fall strategically in between where Braun and Rokita are headed. Often times, a candidate stranded in the middle doesn’t fare so well, particularly in this type of campaign.

Polling has been scarce. The latest data, from Gravis Marketing (April 6-11; 280 Indiana Republican primary voters), finds that the Braun message may well be working, as the businessman/former legislator tops the field with 26 percent, with Rokita and Messer following with 16 and 13 percent, respectively. But, the 280-sample size is small to the point of making the results highly questionable. The fact that the other two candidates are attacking Braun as the focal point in the closing days, however, suggests that their internal data also find the business owner and former legislator holding the upper hand.

Two Indiana House contests merit attention. Rokita’s open western state 4th District will likely pick its new congressman in the Republican primary. Three major candidates, including Mike Braun’s brother Steve, are the contenders of note. In addition to Braun, a former state representative and former state Workforce Development commissioner, state Rep. Jim Baird (R-Greencastle), and former gubernatorial aide (Mike Pence) Diego Morales appear to comprise the top tier. Both Braun and Baird are mostly self-funding their campaigns. Morales has raised more than $550,000 from other individuals.

In Rep. Messer’s 6th District, Vice President Pence’s older brother, Greg Pence, appears to be a lock for the Republican nomination, which is tantamount to winning this seat in the general election. This region last sent a Democrat to Congress in 1992.

Democrats have outside chances of making the 2nd and 9th CDs competitive, and they will choose nominees to oppose Reps. Jackie Walorski (R-Elkhart) and freshman Trey Hollingsworth (R-Jeffersonville), respectively. Healthcare company executive Mel Hall is favored in the 2nd District, and attorney Liz Watson is the probable Democratic winner in District 9.

North Carolina

Without a governor or senator on the ballot, the House races lead the North Carolina ticket this year.

In tomorrow’s primaries, two contests look to be attracting the most attention.

Turning to the 3rd District that houses most of the Outer Banks region, veteran Rep. Walter Jones (R-Farmville), who says he is running for his last term after originally being elected in 1994, is again facing a nomination challenge. This time, he has two opponents: Craven County Commissioner Scott Dacey, and Marine Corps veteran and frequent candidate Phil Law.

The fact that the substantial anti-Jones vote will be split between two candidates favors the congressman to place first, which should be enough for him to win the nomination despite his likely spending less than $500,000 on his campaign. North Carolina now has only a 30 percent threshold to avoid a run-off, thus it is improbable that a secondary election is forced here. With no Democrat filed in this race, today’s vote will elect a congressman for the coming term.

In the Charlotte-anchored 9th District, three-term Rep. Bob Pittenger (R-Charlotte) again faces area pastor Mark Harris. In 2016, the congressman won re-nomination with a scant 134-vote margin over Harris, who is also a former US Senate candidate. The outlook is more positive for Pittenger this year, since his business is no longer under FBI investigation, and he is much more familiar with the current 9th District. In 2016, the court-ordered mid-decade redistricting radically changed this CD, giving Pittenger 60 percent new territory shortly before the primary election.

Rep. Pittenger’s more substantial challenger appears to be coming in the general election. Businessman Dan McCready is poised to win the Democratic nomination and has already raised more than $1.7 million from individuals and posted $1.2 million in the bank according to the pre-primary Federal Election Commission filing. The 9th District general election campaign could quickly become a top-tier race.

Freshman Rep. Ted Budd (R-Advance/Greensboro) also appears headed for a competitive re-election campaign. Expected to win the Democratic nomination is attorney and University of North Carolina at Greensboro trustee Kathy Manning. Like McCready to her south, Manning has also raised into seven figures, and had over $1 million cash-on-hand at the April 18 pre-primary filing deadline. Both the 9th and 13th districts are approximately Trump plus-10 point districts, but expect both to host hard fought contests in November.

Ohio

Buckeye State voters will choose nominees in the open governor and challenger US Senate campaigns today, along with taking the first step toward filling the vacant 12th Congressional District.

It appears set that attorney general and former US Sen. Mike DeWine will defeat Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor in the Republican gubernatorial primary. Likewise for Democratic former attorney general and ex-Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray. The latest polling, a somewhat methodologically flawed survey from Baldwin Wallace University, suggests that margins are strong enough for both candidates to overcome deficiencies in the survey reliability factor.

According to the BWU data (April 24-May 2), with an over-sample of female voters, DeWine has a 52-24 percent lead over Taylor, while Cordray posts a 31-15 percent advantage over former congressman and presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich. The Taylor campaign released their internal data (Remington Research; April 10) that found the lieutenant governor trailing 42-32 percent, but that is the best margin posted for her during this entire contest.

The nomination was essentially clinched for DeWine when he and Secretary of State Jon Husted formed a ticket at the end of November and combined their campaigns. The same for Cordray, when he coalesced with former US Rep. Betty Sutton. Both pairings will be successful in unifying their party tickets.

Assuming all indicators hold and DeWine and Cordray advance to the open general election, the 2018 governor’s race will be a rerun of the 2010 attorney general’s campaign, a contest in which the Republican nominee (DeWine) defeated the Democratic incumbent (Cordray), 47.5-46.3 percent.

In the Senate race, two-term incumbent Sherrod Brown is unopposed for the Democratic nomination. Republican US Rep. Jim Renacci, who switched from running for governor when it became apparent that he could not overtake the DeWine-Husted team, has a lead over Cleveland investment banker Mike Gibbons. Polling is sketchy, showing double-digit leads for Renacci but with both candidates well below 30 percent and a majority of the polling respondents saying they are undecided. Heavy spending was expected before the end of the race as both men had large, self-funded campaign war chests available.

At this point, regardless of who wins the primary though Rep. Renacci remains the favorite — particularly as the official party-endorsed Republican candidate -– the challenge to Sen. Brown begins as a second-tier race. Because Ohio voting trends have moved right, particularly in the last election, the challenge has growth potential but, as the general election campaign begins, Sen. Brown must be rated as a clear favorite for re-election.

The House races feature a special primary election in the Columbus area as 12th District incumbent Pat Tiberi (R) resigned his seat in late January to accept a position in the private sector. Though 11 candidates are on the ballot, it appears that the Republican nomination battle is coming down to establishment-backed Troy Balderson, a state senator, and conservative favorite Melanie Leneghan, a local township trustee. Democrats feature seven candidates vying for their party nomination, including Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Conner and ex-Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott. The Republican nominee becomes the favorite to win the special general election on Aug. 7.

Rep. Renacci’s open 16th District also yields an ideological Republican primary. There, former NFL and Ohio State University football player Anthony Gonzalez has become the mainstream favorite against conservative state Rep. Christina Hagan, who was first elected to the state House when she was just 21 years old. A Hagan victory over Gonzalez would be considered an upset, as the former pro football player appears to have the inside track heading into Election Day.

The remaining 14 congressional races suggest that all incumbents will easily win re-nomination.

West Virginia

With no governor’s race on the ballot this year, the US Senate Republican primary has taken center stage. Here, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, US Rep. Evan Jenkins, and former mining company CEO Don Blankenship have been running tough campaigns for the GOP nomination. The winner faces incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin (D), who is running for his second full term.

This race has been controversial since the beginning when Blankenship entered after finishing a prison term in Nevada for violating mine safety and health standards while CEO of Massey Energy Company. The Upper Big Branch Mine implosion killed 29 of the company’s employees. One reason Blankenship is running for the Senate, he says, is to set the record straight about his conviction, claiming that President Obama and the US Justice Department targeted him as a scapegoat for the deadly cave-in. Originally, the early advertising seemed to be working as Blankenship was faring well in the polls, but he has fallen back when he became the subject of attacks. Now, two final internal polls suggest that he may be surging back into contention. President Trump has now officially gone on record asking voters not to support Blankenship.

The fact that Morrisey in particular is hitting Blankenship hard in the closing days, however, suggests that the disgraced businessman could be moving up. Messages have been so colluded with Morrisey and Jenkins attacking back and forth and outside Super PAC organizations supporting or opposing either or both of the leading candidates leaves the contest in a state of confusion.

Polling has been erratic and seesaws between Morrisey and Jenkins. The last three published polls show the following:

Public Opinion Strategies (Morrisey) – April 22-23
Morrisey – 28%
Jenkins – 26%
Blankenship – 15%

Fox News (April 18-22)
Jenkins – 25%
Morrisey – 21%
Blankenship – 16%

National Research (GOPAC) – April 17-19
Morrisey – 24%
Jenkins – 20%
Blankenship – 12%

With charges and counter-charges flying, the mixed message campaign will end tonight, but it is difficult to say who might finish first. It is likely that either Rep. Jenkins or AG Morrisey will, but just how much of a wild card Blankenship proves to be is still a matter of guesswork.

The competitive congressional campaign centers on Rep. Jenkins’ open 3rd District, as seven Republicans and four Democrats battle for their respective party nominations. Four current or former state legislators and an ex-West Virginia Republican Party chairman are vying for position. Without a run-off, the candidate capturing a plurality advances to the general election. For the Democrats, state Sen. Richard Ojeda appears to be the favorite to secure his party’s nomination. The Republican winner will be in the stronger position when the general election officially begins tomorrow.

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