Morrisey has tried to take up the mantle of the conservative outsider, attacking Jenkins for supporting “liberal” policies on health care and energy as a Democratic state legislator before he switched to the GOP to run for Congress in 2010. But he’s an imperfect vessel for the anti-establishment message: Morrisey first ran for Congress in New Jersey and spent years as a D.C. lobbyist before moving to West Virginia and winning his race for attorney general.
The primary had taken a decidedly bitter turn even without Blankenship’s antics. As Morrisey attacked Jenkins for his past as a Democrat during the debate, the congressman reminded the attorney general that he hadn’t always been so critical.
“You stood next to me and endorsed me three years ago and said I was right for West Virginia. What’s different now?” Jenkins said.
“Evan, I didn’t know you were willing to lie so much and as much of your liberal background,” Morrisey shot back. “I won’t make that mistake again.”
In both Indiana and West Virginia, the primary campaigns have been as much about which Republican can hug Trump the tightest as about any single issue. The candidates have adopted the president’s language and tone on the Russia investigation, slamming it as a “witch hunt” and criticizing Special Counsel Robert Mueller. “I am very clear: End this investigation now,” Jenkins declared in West Virginia.
During a debate last week in Indiana, neither Messer, Rokita, nor Braun would even engage when a moderator asked whether there’s any issue on which they disagree with the president. After all three used the opportunity instead to attack one another for insufficiently supporting Trump, Messer went after the question itself. “The media,” he said, “wants to divide us from the president of the United States.”
Two days later, Messer released a letter signed by 17 other House Republicans—including three others running for the Senate—nominating Trump for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea. The next day, Rokita responded by releasing an ad lumping Mueller in with his Democratic opponent Donnelly and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. The ad labeled Messer a “Never Trumper” and said he wasn’t tough enough to end the Russia “witch hunt.”
“That’s the world we live in today,” said Brian Walsh, a veteran GOP strategist in Washington. “For all the controversies and the chaos, the president is still tremendously popular among the Republican base.” As if to reward the eventual winner in Indiana for his loyalty, Trump is planning a campaign rally in the state two days after this week’s primary, where he’ll help launch the fall campaign against Donnelly.
Messer and Rokita entered the House two years apart and have developed similar profiles and voting records—so similar, in fact, that one of Braun’s ads features cardboard cut-outs of the congressmen and asks voters whether they can tell the two apart. Braun has some political experience: He served in the state legislature for four years. But he made his name as a warehouse distributor and has spent $4 million on often cheeky TV ads knocking Messer and Rokita’s careers.