GOP’s internal war intensifies in Mississippi and West Virginia races

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is show in the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington on February 13, 2018.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is show in the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington on February 13, 2018. The Washington Post

A long-running fight between mainstream Republican leaders and controversial GOP candidates is intensifying in a pair of key Senate races, with contenders lashing out at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as his allies try to elevate their Republican opponents.

In West Virginia, the polarizing former coal executive candidate Don Blankenship issued a written statement excoriating McConnell on Monday. He called the Senate leader a “Swamp captain” and likened his strategy to Russian involvement in the 2016 election.

“The Russians and McConnell should both stop interfering with elections outside their jurisdictions,” said Blankenship. A McConnell political spokesman declined to respond to Blankenship’s remarks.

The statement came after a group called Mountain Families PAC launched an ad campaign opposing Blankenship. Party leaders fear that if Blankenship is nominated, his past would hurt GOP chances of picking up a crucial Democratic seat. Blankenship has served a one-year prison sentence for conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards after a 2010 underground explosion killed 29 miners.

While Mountain Families PAC’s donors are not yet known, the organization has paid a trio of political firms with ties to McConnell allies, according to a federal campaign finance filing. Those firms have previously worked with the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC helmed by a top former McConnell aide; and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is the Senate Republican campaign arm.

The White House has also taken an interest in the West Virginia race, where Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin is trying to hold his seat in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. On a recent visit to the state, Trump snubbed Blankenship, sitting next to his two Republican opponents - Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey - at a roundtable on tax reform.

The competition between Morrisey and Jenkins is heating up ahead of the May 8 primary. The attorney general released a new ad Tuesday attacking Jenkins as too liberal.

West Virginia is one of 10 states Trump won where Democrats are defending Senate seats this year. GOP leaders are hopeful about making gains in those states to help them hold or expand their narrow 51-49 Senate majority in November.

Unpredictable MS

But they must also defend seats that Democrats are contesting. In Mississippi, insurgent conservative Chris McDaniel is challenging recently appointed Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith. Those two Republicans are joined by two Democrats in an unpredictable race that would go to a runoff if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in a Nov. 6 special election.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a television ad last week touting Hyde-Smith, marking their first step onto the airwaves in the midterms. Trump and McConnell have yet to endorse Hyde-Smith. But she is seen among many party leaders as preferable to McDaniel, who has been openly critical of McConnell and Senate GOP leaders.

On Twitter this week, McDaniel singled out McConnell, labeling Hyde-Smith his “handpicked” candidate. In fact, McConnell and Trump wanted Republican Gov. Phil Bryant to appoint himself to replace the ailing Thad Cochran and then run for the seat. Bryant declined, and has enthusiastically supported Hyde-Smith.

McConnell allies have said they do not believe attacks against him will resonate with Republican primary voters.

Allies of Hyde-Smith and McDaniel have already been positioning to cast their favored candidate as the strongest competitor against the Democrats. The Senate Leadership Fund promoted a poll on Tuesday showing Hyde-Smith in close competition with Democrat Mike Espy and McDaniel lagging behind.