Two wealthy candidates threaten to shake up GOP Senate primaries in Indiana and West Virginia, races where the chance to take on vulnerable Democratic incumbents has already provoked bruising internal GOP fights.
Former Indiana state Rep. Mike Braun, who announced his bid over the summer, has injected enough of his own money into his bid to mount a competitive challenge to Reps. Todd RokitaTheodore (Todd) Edward RokitaBottom Line Lobbying world Female Dems see double standard in Klobuchar accusations MORE and Luke MesserAllen (Luke) Lucas MesserK Street giants scoop up coveted ex-lawmakers Yoder, Messer land on K Street House GOP to force members to give up leadership positions if running for higher office MORE.
And millionaire former coal executive Don Blankenship, fresh off a one-year prison sentence after being convicted of violating mine safety rules, is raising eyebrows with an impending bid in West Virginia. While Blankenship has no political experience, his deep pockets and brash style could scramble the current Republican primary field, which is currently divided by Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsWest Virginia New Members 2019 Republican Carol Miller holds off Democrat in West Virginia House race Trump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report MORE and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
The new challengers could scramble the race to take on Sen. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEx-Sen. Joe Donnelly endorses Biden Lobbying world 70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents MORE (D-Ind.) and Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump administration seeks to use global aid for nuclear projects Shelley Moore Capito wins Senate primary West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice wins GOP gubernatorial primary MORE (D-W.Va.), who are considered among the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents on the ballot in 2018.
In Indiana, Braun has already hit the airwaves to position himself as the choice for voters looking for an outsider.
“Politicians talk — that’s all they do,” Braun said in his second campaign ad released last week, which finds him speaking from a distributing business he founded.
“President Trump was right, we need fewer career politicians in Washington — folks who actually live conservative values, who aren’t beholden to special interests, and who put you first,” he said.
Braun has loaned his campaign $850,000, according to the most recent financial disclosure reports through Sept. 30, and raised another $200,000 from individuals.
By comparison, Rokita and Messer both have about $2.4 million in the bank. Since Braun is expected to continue to self-fund, though, he’ll likely have the resources to keep pace with his rivals.
Rokita and Messer started sparring with one another in the spring, even before they announced their candidacies.
Rokita and his allies have argued that reports about Messer’s residency could undercut him with voters. Messer’s family lives with him in Virginia, while he stays at the home he co-owns with his mother in Indiana when he returns to the Hoosier State.
Messer has responded to those attacks by arguing that his family moved so he could be an active parent while working in Washington.
And Messer has also jabbed back, needling Rokita for an internal memo published by Politico that described a litany of exacting rules for aides ferrying him around the district.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Braun, who stumbled last week when he had to fire a ballot signature collector with affiliations to white nationalists. But his early spending has raised eyebrows among those who wonder whether the fight between Rokita and Messer gives him an opening.
“I don’t automatically think it’s a three-person race. I think he needs to go a few more miles before that’s the case,” a prominent Indiana Republican following the race told The Hill. “But I think anyone who throws in $800,000 of their own money on their first report will get people’s attention.”
Braun’s footprint will likely change the dynamic ahead of the May 8 primary, as the two lawmakers will likely try to use Braun’s candidacy to their advantage.
Rokita’s camp, which is styling the congressman as an outsider in his own right, has already tried to lump Braun and Messer together. His campaign tweeted out pictures of Braun and a Messer sign with a Snapchat filter of the campaign’s slogan, “Defeat the Elite.” And a Rokita spokesman tarred Braun as “Tax Hike Mike” for backing legislation to raise the state’s gas tax and other tax hikes in the legislature.
But Braun’s team is already pushing back, noting that Rokita once encouraged lawmakers to look at ways to responsibly raise the gas tax.
Messer’s team hasn’t taken on Braun directly, but stands to benefit if Braun and Rokita fight over who qualifies more as an “outsider.”
In West Virginia, Blankenship has so far taken a less bellicose approach to his primary opponents. Instead of immediately sparring with them, the former coal company executive has attempted to use his campaign rollout to clear his name and attack Manchin.
Blankenship was CEO of Massey Energy Corp. when an explosion at one of the mines killed 29 miners in 2010. While Blankenship blames the Mine Safety and Health Administration, government investigators concluded the blast was caused because Massey didn’t properly clean up coal dust.
Blankenship spent his yearlong prison sentence in California, and was released in May.
After launching his campaign last week, Blankenship ran an ad claiming that the explosion was “Obama’s deadliest cover-up” while also placing blame on Manchin.
If he wins the primary, he’d square off against Manchin, who was governor at the time of the explosion and said in 2014 that he believed Blankenship has “blood on his hands.” Blankenship has previously blasted Manchin over that criticism, calling on the senator to apologize and challenging him to a debate.
As of Monday afternoon, the Senate’s Office of Public Records hadn’t received Blankenship’s candidacy paperwork, though a source with knowledge of the campaign claimed it was delivered Friday.
While Blankenship just entered the race, the bruising GOP primary has been underway for months.
Jenkins and Morrisey have both positioned themselves as strong allies of Trump, who won West Virginia by nearly 42 points in 2016 and still enjoys high approval ratings in the state.
Morrisey earned a key endorsement from a pro-Trump outside group with ties to former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, lending credibility to his pro-Trump bona fides.
But Jenkins, who has served in Congress since 2015, has the cash advantage. Jenkins has nearly $1.3 million in the bank, compared to Morrisey’s roughly $548,000 account.
Blankenship will be playing catch-up with fundraising, but his personal wealth could buoy him if he commits to extensive self-funding.
“He’s a big personality. He’s a big name. He’s certainly well-funded and has a lot to say,” said a West Virginia GOP strategist. “I think all those things contribute to a changed dynamic.”
Blankenship’s biggest hurdle, however, will be finishing out his yearlong probation in Nevada. He has residences in both West Virginia and Nevada, but court documents show he transferred his probation to Nevada.
The former mining executive will need to get his probation officer to sign off on travel when he leaves Nevada. The probation term doesn’t end until after the May 8 primary, which could complicate Blankenship’s ability to campaign over the next five months.
Some political observers believe Blankenship’s campaign is nothing more than a ploy for attention.
“My sense is this is more of an ego trip for him than a serious candidacy,” said Patrick Hickey, a West Virginia University political science professor.
“It may not be to win as much as it is to both receive the attention and have … a platform through which he could rebuild his reputation in the state,” he said.
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