— Republican primary voters avoided a self-inflicted wound in West Virginia when disgraced coal baron Don Blankenship (R) finished third in the GOP Senate primary.
— Much else went as expected Tuesday night.
— Five ratings changes this week affect races for Senate, governor, and House, but most importantly broaden the Senate playing field.
Table 1: Crystal Ball ratings changes
Tuesday night’s marquee primary came in West Virginia, where rumors based on internal polls suggested that Don Blankenship (R), a disgraced former coal company executive who had recently served jail time for ignoring federal mine safety laws in connection with a mining disaster that killed 29 in 2010, was poised to win the Republican Senate nomination in the Mountain State. Blankenship ended up finishing in third. The anti-Blankenship bubble may have been a way for national Republicans to cajole President Donald Trump into weighing in against Blankenship, which he did on Monday. As it turned out, Blankenship probably was never as serious a contender for the nomination as he might have seemed.
In any event, Republican primary voters in West Virginia avoided making a silly decision Tuesday. They ultimately picked state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R) over second-place finisher Rep. Evan Jenkins (R, WV-3) to face Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) in November. We thought Jenkins might be a better choice for Republicans: He is from the southern part of the state where Manchin will need to do well, and Jenkin’s party switch prior to his initial 2014 House victory would not have been a liability in a state where changing party allegiance from Democrat to Republican is a common experience for many voters (in 1988, Michael Dukakis carried West Virginia; by 2016, Trump was carrying it by 42 points). Democrats apparently agreed with our assessment of Jenkins’ strength because they meddled in the Republican primary, with the seeming intention of trying to get Blankenship nominated or, at the very least, to prevent Jenkins’ nomination. Still, Morrisey is perfectly capable of beating Manchin, and we’re moving the West Virginia Senate race from Leans Democratic to Toss-up.
In Indiana, we saw the latest iteration of a familiar story in Republican primaries. A long-expected and nasty two-way battle for a nomination, in this case between Reps. Todd Rokita (R, IN-4) and Luke Messer (R, IN-6), provided an opening for a third candidate, self-funding former state Rep. Mike Braun (R). Braun provided something of a breath of fresh air to voters, and he easily won the nomination to face Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) in the fall. Similar kinds of primaries helped lead to the nominations of some prominent Republicans, like Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) and Gov. Matt Bevin (R-KY), who did not start their respective nomination battles as favorites but ended up capitalizing on battles among their competitors in multi-candidate fields. To be honest, Messer and Rokita did not impress us all that much in this campaign, and Indiana Republicans may have made a shrewd move in picking Braun, a relative newcomer. That said, Braun also is less vetted than Messer and Rokita, so while he might have a high ceiling as a candidate, he may also have a low floor if Democratic opposition researchers can find holes in his resume. That said, this was a Toss-up before and is a Toss-up now, and we were not planning on changing our rating in Indiana no matter which of the three Republicans got nominated. Donnelly is one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats in a state that Trump won by 19 points, but he also is a well-liked incumbent who will not be a pushover.
Tuesday’s one other Senate primary came in Ohio, where Rep. Jim Renacci (R, OH-16) won his primary over businessman Mike Gibbons (R) and others, although Renacci got less than 50% of the vote and perhaps needed a little boost from the president, which he has been getting. Incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) remains a favorite in the fall.
We have one other ratings change in the Senate, which is unrelated to Tuesday’s primaries. We’re downgrading Republican odds in Tennessee, although the GOP remains favored there. As a part of our determination on Tennessee, we also pondered a similar change in Texas, but we decided to leave our rating in the Lone Star State unchanged.
In Tennessee, there is more and more evidence that Democrats might have a real chance of winning the open seat of outgoing Sen. Bob Corker (R), who is retiring. A late March poll from Middle Tennessee State University tested the likely general election matchup, finding former Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) ahead of Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R, TN-7) by 10 percentage points, 45%-35%. We were cautious about over-interpreting that result because Tennessee has become a much more Republican state since the mid-2000s. Based on two-party presidential voting, Tennessee’s lean in presidential elections relative to the national popular vote margin shifted nearly 18 points toward the GOP from 2004 to 2016. That is, it went from being a state that was 11.9 points more Republican in margin than the country as a whole in the contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry to 29.5 points more Republican in Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton. Only West Virginia (36 points more Republican) and Arkansas (23 points) moved more to the right than Tennessee in that period. Bredesen last ran for office in 2006, when he won a sweeping reelection victory, but that race was in a state far closer to 2004-era Tennessee than the 2016-era Volunteer State.
Table 2: Nonpartisan Tennessee Senate polls since March
Since MTSU’s poll, however, two more nonpartisan polls have seemingly confirmed that a Bredesen win may be quite possible. As shown in Table 2, the three surveys taken since ex-Rep. Stephen Fincher (R) dropped out of the Senate contest in mid-February — leaving Blackburn practically unopposed for the GOP nomination — suggest Bredesen is either ahead or tied, and not that far away from the guaranteed win percentage of 50%+1. For a Democrat to be somewhat close to the 50% mark is important because the undecideds lean Republican in identification, and if they vote, they will probably vote Republican. We are moving Tennessee from Likely Republican to Leans Republican, though we will see how things change (or don’t change) as the campaign revs up over the next few months.
Democrats have spent the last few years earnestly hoping for “Blue Texas” to become a reality. However, the Lone Star State has been more like the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock in The Great Gatsby — a murky, distant, and perhaps unreachable goal for Democrats. Still, the 2018 cycle might present a chance for that seemingly remote dream to come true. A mid-April survey from Quinnipiac University grabbed attention when it found incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R) leading Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D, TX-16) just 47%-44%, although Republicans and independent observers questioned it. We don’t really think this is a three-point race ourselves, but we also don’t think it’s going to be a typical GOP Texas blowout, either. Given Texas’ demographics and the fact that Trump won it by a smaller margin than Iowa in the 2016 presidential election, perhaps Texas has shifted enough to be competitive in a very friendly Democratic environment. Such conditions might be a reality this November, though how favorable things will be for Democrats remains an open question.
In the money race, O’Rourke is certainly fundraising like a first tier challenger. Surprisin