- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2018

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia voters say the Republican candidates in Tuesday’s Senate primary have embarrassed and disgraced their state on the national stage with an increasingly nasty primary battle over who gets to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III.

The race in West Virginia, like the Republican senatorial primaries in Ohio and Indiana on Tuesday, has turned into a test of Trumpiness. Candidates are competing to embrace President Trump’s policies — and to emulate his impudent style of campaigning that has left little room for the more polite campaigns of old.

Tensions surrounding the final debate in West Virginia last week reached the point that one candidate accused the Senate’s top Republican of complicity in cocaine smuggling and another candidate released an ad with an edited photo of his opponent shaking hands with Hillary Clinton.

The nationally televised debate wasn’t much better.

“What a disgrace to the state to do what they did,” Gary Burch, a Vietnam veteran and lifelong Morgantown resident, told The Washington Times. “All they did was bark at each other. The purpose of a debate to me is not to condemn the other person; it’s to better yourself.”

In Indiana, meanwhile, Reps. Todd Rokita and Luke Messer and former state Rep. Mike Braun are brawling over the Trump legacy with slash-and-burn tactics that have left voters wondering whether Hoosier hospitality is a thing of the past.

“These guys seem to be betting on ‘If you are the most Trump-like you are going to win,’ ” said Mike O’Brien, who managed Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s 2016 campaign and who called such calculations misguided. “No one can be Trump like Trump. … If you act like Trump, it is not transferable.”

Judging by their campaigns, the candidates beg to differ.

Political pros say Mr. Trump’s norm-shattering 2016 campaign, in which he insulted and berated his way to victory over a massive Republican field then topped longtime pol Mrs. Clinton in the general election, has set new expectations for many voters.

They are now looking for the hardest jab and are no longer punishing candidates who play loose with the facts or hit below the belt.

“The Trump effect,” said Tom Bloom, president of the Monongalia County Commission in West Virginia. “People see that it worked.”

Mr. Bloom is not a fan of the approach but said it seems to work.

“It’s something you would never say to someone else, but they said it, and you’re like, ‘OK, a part of me, all right, I’m glad it was said,’ ” Mr. Bloom said.

West Virginia’s senatorial primary pits former coal mine executive Don Blankenship against Rep. Evan H. Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

Indiana, like West Virginia, has a three-way standoff with the battle between Mr. Rokita and Mr. Messer creating an opening for Mr. Braun.

In neighboring Ohio, the senatorial race features, among others, Rep. James B. Renacci and businessman Mike Gibbons, who on Friday filed a defamation lawsuit against Mr. Renacci accusing him of making false statements — including portraying Mr. Gibbons as anti-Trump.

Each of those states has a Democratic senator up for re-election this year, and Democrats are hoping the nasty Republican primaries dent whoever emerges.

“It is certainly not ideal, and we exposed a lot of baggage that would have been better not exposed,” said Mr. O’Brien, the Indiana Republican Party operative, though he believes the party can still unify. “I think we have short memories on how tough some of these primaries are that we go through over the years.”

Mr. Trump is backing Mr. Renacci in Ohio and has taken a stance of sorts in West Virginia, where his son, Donald Trump Jr., urged voters to reject Mr. Blankenship.

The embrace of Trumpiness in the campaigns is all the more stark with candidates distancing themselves from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican under whom they would be serving if they win their races.

Mr. Blankenship is perhaps furthest out there, tying Mr. McConnell to cocaine deals because of a reported shipment of drugs found on a ship owned by a shipping company run by his wife’s father. Fact-checkers have blasted Mr. Blankenship for the claim, and a McConnell aligned super PAC has raised questions about Mr. Blankenship.

Other candidates have ducked the question of whether they would back Mr. McConnell as party leader. They are hoping to avoid being tied to him in voters’ minds.

Another byproduct of the “Trump effect,” voters suggested, is that major flaws in a candidate’s past can be overlooked.

Mr. Blankenship spent a year in federal prison in connection with the Upper Big Branch mine explosion of 2010. The disaster killed 29 miners in a state that remains the beating heart of the American coal industry. Mr. Blankenship maintains he was wrongfully imprisoned and that the federal government caused the blast.

His incarceration might have been widely viewed as fatal to his candidacy, but that no longer seems to be the case.

“I think he got railroaded. They wanted to get rid of coal in West Virginia, and that was the perfect situation to put it on trial in front of the country. … I’m starting to lean toward Blankenship,” said David Webber, 55, a Morgantown resident who works in construction for the county.

A registered independent, Mr. Webber said he initially was leaning toward Mr. Morrisey. But the attorney general has come under intense fire for his and his wife’s previous role as Washington lobbyists, including work on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry.

Mr. Morrisey has said he is leading the fight against the opioid crisis. Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Blankenship have said that claim is utterly false.

Some voters seem to agree, and they draw comparisons of the candidates’ checkered pasts.

“Morrisey made all his millions off the pills coming into West Virginia,” Mr. Webber said. “What’s the difference between what he did and what Blankenship did?”

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