By John Whitesides
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Businessman Mike Braun defeated two members of Congress on Tuesday in a bitter primary battle to capture the Republican Senate nomination in Indiana, setting up against incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly in one of November’s top races.
All three Republicans competed to show their allegiance to President Donald Trump in a state he won by double-digits in 2016. But while longtime rivals Luke Messer and Todd Rokita hammered each other with personal attacks, Braun portrayed his rivals as indistinguishable products of Washington.
Braun was projected by media as the winner with more than two-thirds of the votes counted. Messer and Rokita were in a tight battle for second place.
The result showed the continued political appeal of outsiders who run against the establishment and the Washington status quo, much as Trump did in sweeping to the White House in 2016, as both parties gear up for the November midterm elections.
“From the beginning our message has been pretty simple – we need more outsiders and less career politicians in Washington. More folks that have done something in the real world,” Braun said in a statement after his victory.
Braun, a former state legislator, put more than $5 million of his own money in the race and will be expected to spend liberally again to challenge Donnelly in Indiana.
The Indiana race was one of the top contests on Tuesday as four states held primaries to pick candidates for November, when Democrats must gain two Senate seats and 23 House of Representative seats to regain majorities in Congress and blunt Trump’s agenda.
Republicans also waged bitter Senate primary battles in West Virginia and Ohio, where Trump also won in 2016 and which also have incumbent Democratic senators up for re-election.
In West Virginia, ex-convict and former coal executive Don Blankenship had worried Republicans with a late surge in the Senate primary race against U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.
In early returns, Morrisey narrowly led Jenkins while Blankenship was running third.
Trump, who won the state by more than 40 percentage points in 2016, had urged voters to support either Jenkins or Morrisey and warned that a Blankenship win would spoil Republican chances to pick up a Senate seat against Democratic incumbent Joe Manchin.
Blankenship, who served a year in prison for safety violations in a 2010 disaster that killed 29 coal miners, ran a campaign featuring racially tinged attacks on Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell for creating jobs for “China people” and highlighting the Taiwanese heritage of McConnell’s wife, U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
In Ohio, where liberal Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown is another top Republican target, U.S. Representative Jim Renacci won the battle for the Republican Senate nomination over Cleveland-area investment banker Michael Gibbons.
Gibbons filed a defamation lawsuit against Renacci, who had won Trump’s endorsement, alleging his campaign falsely claimed Gibbons was anti-Trump.
Ohio voters also went to the polls for the gubernatorial election, with Republican Governor John Kasich constrained by term limits. The November match-up will see Democrat Richard Cordray, the former head of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, facing Republican state Attorney General Mike DeWine.
Cordray defeated Dennis Kucinich, the former Cleveland mayor, member of Congress and presidential candidate, in a battle of liberal favorites. Cordray had received the endorsement of liberal Senator Elizabeth Warren, while Kucinich had the backing of key allies of 2016 Democratic presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders.
On the Republican side, DeWine beat Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor.
(Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney and Leslie Adler)