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Opinion: The Case for Ugly Primaries

The process is messy, but it can reveal much

Don Blankenship, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in West Virginia, conducts a town hall meeting at Macado’s restaurant in Bluefield, W.Va., on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Don Blankenship, who is running for the Republican nomination for Senate in West Virginia, conducts a town hall meeting at Macado’s restaurant in Bluefield, W.Va., on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

You can’t blame Republican leaders for trying to pick the winner of Tuesday’s West Virginia primary ahead of time when the words “prison” and “supervised release” show up in nearly every story about Don Blankenship. The Senate hopeful and former coal executive did a year behind bars recently for the dangerously unsafe conditions in his coal mines, but is now somehow surging in the polls.

Republicans want a strong general election candidate to take on Sen. Joe Manchin in November, and trying to block a jailbird from the GOP nomination seems like a no-brainer. Add to that Blankenship’s willingness to savage Mitch McConnell as “Cocaine Mitch” and call the father of his wife, Elaine Chao, a “Chinaperson,” and it would take a Herculean amount of strength for the Senate majority leader and his supporters not to get sucked into a fight against one of their own.

But as offensive as Blankenship is, trying to head him or any other Republican off in a primary is the worst thing that GOP leaders could do for the long-term strength of their party. For one thing, trying to pick a primary winner hasn’t worked very well lately. Nothing that McConnell did to keep accused child molester Roy Moore down in the primary there worked, despite the whopping $8 million the Senate Leadership Fund plowed into the race.

In fact, targeting Moore for defeat before the primary may even have helped the GOP gadfly, whose main appeal to supporters was that he was not a member of the D.C. cabal. What better proof than the full frontal assault against him from his own party?

Trump weighs in

A similar dynamic seems to be playing out in West Virginia, where an outside group with ties to GOP leadership is running ads against Blankenship. On top of that, President Donald Trump came out against him, too, with a tweet Monday morning that warned, “Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State…No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!”

Yes, remember Alabama? Just like Roy Moore, outside attacks from the GOP only seem to reinforce the campaign message that Washington leaders want nothing to do with them. In a year when outsiders are in, that’s a good thing.

In addition to the fact that rigging primaries doesn’t really work, if the last two years have taught the parties anything, it should be the value of contested primary elections when it comes to understanding the mood and motivations of their voters.

Many clues

Had Republicans been listening, there were all kinds of clues embedded in primaries in the years before 2016 that showed Trump or someone like him was coming.

In 2010, Sen. Robert Bennett lost his primary in Utah, as did Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska. In 2012, Sen. Richard Lugar got clobbered by Richard Mourdock, who then lost to now-Sen. Joe Donnelly after calling pregnancy from a rape part of God’s plan. That same year, Rep. Todd Akin won the GOP primary but became the daddy of all nomination disasters with his disturbing comments about “legitimate rape” before he lost his challenge to Sen. Claire McCaskill in November.

Republicans managed to take back the Senate in 2016, but the underlying message has been clear — the grass-roots activists of the party have wanted more fight out of their leaders in Washington for years and it’s still not clear they’ve gotten what they seem to keep asking for.

Republicans have several more contested primaries on the map before November that are still showing frustration with party leaders, despite the fact that McConnell and company have been largely supportive of Trump’s agenda, including Ohio and North Carolina.

In Indiana, Rep. Luke Messer is running against Rep. Todd Rokita, who has an ad out assuring voters, “I’m pro-life, pro-gun and pro-Trump.” They are both facing businessman Mike Braun, who starts off one of his ads, “President Trump got it right.” And in Virginia, Corey Stewart is calling his opponent “a stooge for the establishment” in the contest to face Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine in November.

Luckily for the Democrats, they have largely managed to avoid major intraparty battles in Senate primaries this cycle, but it still feels like the warning signs from the Bernie Sanders’ surge in 2016 have largely gone unnoticed.

The instinct to squash rebellions and silence dissent is understandable. Contested primaries represent everything that professional campaign operations can’t stand — uncertainty, unflattering angles and family feuds that they’d rather have behind closed doors. But contested primaries are like a checkups. If you’re healthy, everything should go according to plan. If there’s a problem, you need to know sooner rather than later.

Skipping a checkup won’t make you any healthier than preventing a primary fight. It will only keep you from knowing the bad news while your symptoms, and your sickness, progress.  

Roll Call columnist Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy. 5 Things to Watch in Tuesday’s Congressional Primaries

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