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Election Preview: Four Southern U.S. Senate races are key in battle for control

Republicans are defending seats in Texas and Tennessee; Democrats in Florida and West Virginia

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

(CFP) — With the balance of power in the U.S. Senate hanging in the balance, voters in four Southern states will decide hotly contested races in Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Republicans are defending seats in Texas and Tennessee that have turned out to be much more competitive than expected in two very Republican states. Meanwhile, Democratic incumbents are defending turf in Florida and West Virginia, states which President Donald Trump carried in 2016.

Another Senate seat is up in Virginia, where Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine is favored to win re-election. Both seats are up this year in Mississippi, and Republican candidates are favored to hold both.

In Texas, Republican U.S. Senator Ted Cruz is seeking a second term against Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a race in which the challenger has sparked the imagination of Democratic activists around the country.

Cruz, who came in second to Trump in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, was heavily favored for re-election at the beginning of 2018. But O’Rourke — trying to take advantage of a changing political electorate in fast-growing Texas, including more younger and Latino voters — has made the race competitive, even though Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate in 30 years.

O’Rouke has raised more than $70 million for the race, the largest haul of any Senate candidate this cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records. Cruz has raised $40 million.

Despite Cruz’s often contentious relationship with Trump during the 2016 presidential primaries, which famously included Trump dubbing him “Lyin’ Ted,” the president has gone all out for Cruz in this race, even traveling to Houston for a campaign rally.

In Tennessee, Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn is vying with former Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen for a seat which opened after the retirement of U.S. Senator Bob Corker, one of Trump’s strongest critics in Congress.

After first rebuffing calls for him to run after Corker announced he was leaving the Senate, Bredesen changed course last December and jumped into the race, giving Volunteer State Democrats a shot at capturing the seat behind the candidacy of a popular two-term moderate.

But Blackburn has fought back by trying to tie Bredesen to national Democratic leaders who are unpopular in Tennessee, in particular Hillary Clinton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.

Republicans currently have  a slim one-vote majority in the Senate. However, because Democrats are defending more seats this cycle than Republicans, it is unlikely they can capture a Senate majority — and depose Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader — without winning in either Texas and Tennessee.

In Florida, Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson is facing off against Republican Governor Rick Scott, who has served as the Sunshine State’s chief executive for the past eight years.

Nelson, who first arrived in Congress during the Carter administration, is a proven vote-getter seeking his fourth term. Scott’s two wins for governor were narrow, although his approval ratings have ticked up during the final year of his administration.

Florida is more evenly divided than either Texas or Tennessee, generally sending one senator from each party to Washington since the 1980s. Trump’s win in Florida in 2016 was by a single point, compared to a 9-point win in Texas and a 26-point win in Tennessee.

In West Virginia, Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin was seen as particularly vulnerable given Trump’s 40-point win in the Mountaineer State. But Machin kept himself in contention by avoiding criticism of the president and supporting him on a number of high-profile issues, including both of Trump’s Supreme Court picks.

Manchin may have also benefited from the Republicans’ selection of a standard-bearer — State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who grew up in New Jersey, has only lived in West Virginia since 2006 and spent nearly a decade as a Washington lobbyist.

The folksy Manchin, a West Virginia native who served as governor before being elected to the Senate, has made much of that contrast. Morrisey has responded much the way Blackburn has in Tennessee — by trying to tie the incumbent to liberal establishment Democrats.

In Mississippi, both Senate seats are up this year due to the retirement of former U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. One race is a special election to fill the remainder of Cochran’s term; the other is for the seat occupied by Republican U.S. Senator Roger Wicker.

While Wicker is heavily favored over his Democratic challenger, State House Minority Leader David Baria, the special election features a three-way race in which candidates from all parties will compete and a runoff held between the top two vote-getters if no one captures a majority.

The special election is a three-way contest between Republican U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, Cochran’s temporary replacement; Republican State Senator Chris McDaniel, who lost a bitter primary against Cochran in 2014; and Democrat Mike Espy, a former congressman who served as secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration.

Depending on how evenly the Republican vote is divided, the top GOP candidate could face Espy in a November 27 runoff. But polls have showed Hyde-Smith with a wide lead over McDaniel, which could be enough for her to win the seat outright on Tuesday.

Although McDaniel was a vocal supporter of Trump in 2016, the president snubbed McDaniel and endorsed Hyde-Smith, who had been a Democrat until 2010. McDaniel has charged that Trump was “forced” into making the endorsement by Senate Republican leaders.

In Virginia, Kaine is facing Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, who served as Trump’s Virginia coordinator in 2016.

When he kicked off his campaign in July 2017, Stewart vowed to “run the most vicious, ruthless campaign” that he could against Kaine. However, public polling in the race has shown that strategy has failed to gain traction, and Kaine enjoys a wide lead.

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West Virginia U.S. Senator Joe Manchin breaks with party to support Kavanaugh confirmation

Manchin’s decision all but ensures that President Trump’s nominee will get seat on U.S. Supreme Court

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

WASHINGTON (CFP) — U.S. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia says he will vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, the only Senate Democrat to break with his party to support President Trump’s embattled nominee.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin

Manchin’s decision virtually ensures that Kavanuagh will be confirmed when the Senate takes a final vote on the nomination, a week after the jurist angrily denied allegations that he sexually assaulted a girl when they were teenagers in the 1980s.

The vote on the nomination was delayed a week while the FBI investigated the allegations.

In a statement announcing his decision, Manchin said he has “reservations about this vote given the serious accusations against Judge Kavanaugh and the temperament he displayed in the hearing.”

“My heart goes out to anyone who has experienced sexual assault,” Manchin said. “However, based on all the information I have available to me, including the recently concluded FBI report, I have found Judge Kavanaugh to be a qualified jurist who will follow the Constitution and determine cases based on the legal findings before him.”

But Machin also said he hoped Kavanaugh “would not let the partisan nature this process took follow him on to the court.”

After supporting Kavanaugh in a procedural vote, Manchin had to make he way past a crowd of angry protestors inside the Capitol.

Machin is the only Democratic senator to support Kavanaugh. His vote became more important for the confirmation after one of the Senate’s 51 Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, announced that she would vote no.

Four other Southern Democrats opposed the nomination — Mark Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia, Bill Nelson of Florida, and Doug Jones of Alabama. All 23 Southern Republicans supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

Machin — running for re-election in November in a state Trump carried by 40 points in 2016 — was under considerable pressure to back Kavanaugh.  He previously supported Trump’s first nominee to the court, Neil Gorsuch.

Polls have consistently shown Manchin with a lead over his Republican opponent, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

On Twitter, Morrisey accused Manchin of making “a craven political calculation” in supporting Kavanaugh and said he “owes West Virginia an apology for watching, doing nothing, as Democrats sought to destroy Judge Kavanaugh.”

Nelson and Kaine are also up for re-election in November; Warner and Jones will be on the ballot in 2020.

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Don Blankenship denied ballot slot in West Virginia U.S. Senate race

Secretary of state says “sore loser” law prevents Blankenship from running as a minor-party candidate after losing GOP primary

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (CFP) — Don Blankenship will not be allowed to run as the Constitution Party’s U.S. Senate candidate in West Virginia in November because of a state law that prohibits candidates who lose major-party primaries from making minor-party bids, the state’s top election official has decided.

Don Blankenship

The ruling by Secretary of State Mac Warner is a victory for Mountaineer State Republicans, who feared a third-party bid by Blankenship would siphon off votes from their nominee, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is trying to unseat Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin.

However, Blankenship has indicated he would challenge any attempt to keep him off the ballot, and Warner has already hired outside legal counsel for the expected court fight.

Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, spent a year in federal prison for violating mine safety regulations after 29 miners died in an explosion in his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, the deadliest U.S. mine accident in the last 40 years.

Insisting that he was unfairly prosecuted by the Obama Justice Department, he launched a campaign for the Republican nomination for Manchin’s Senate seat. His candidacy unsettled GOP leaders, who feared his nomination would hand Manchin an easy re-election.

During the campaign, Blankenship carried on a nasty public feud with the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, even airing a TV ad calling him “Cocaine Mitch,” a spurious charge based on a report that cocaine had been found on a ship belonging to a shipping company owned by the family of McConnell’s Chinese-American wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

President Donald Trump also intervened before the May primary, urging his supporters not to vote for Blankenship, even though he had fashioned himself as an enthusiastic supporter of the president.

After finishing third in the Republican primary, Blankenship refused to endorse Morrisey and later accepted an offer from the Constitution Party to be its nominee. Because the party is not recognized as an official party in West Virginia, Blankenship then had to collect at least 4,400 signatures to get on the ballot.

In a July 26 letter to Blankenship, Warner, a Republican, said that while Blankenship did collect enough petition signature to qualify as the Constitution Party’s candidate, his certification was being denied state law does not allow candidates who lose a primary to change their registration to run as a member of a third party.

West Virginia is one of 40 states with “sore loser” or “sour grapes” laws that prohibit primary losers from trying to run in a general election.

Blankenship’s effort to get into the general election after running into primary difficulty is not without precedent in recent U.S. Senate elections.

In 2006, then-U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut created his own party to run in the general election after losing a Democratic primary. He won in November.

In 2010, in Florida, then-Governor Charlie Crist ran for the Senate as a Republican but switched to an independent candidacy after it was clear he would be unlikely to win the GOP primary against Marco Rubio. Rubio won that race; Crist was elected to the U.S. House in 2016.

Manchin — running for re-election as a Democrat in a state Trump won by 40 points in 2016 — is at the top of the Republicans’ target list. However, recent public polling has consistently shown him with a lead over Morrisey

Failed GOP U.S. Senate candidate Don Blankenship will make 3rd-party bid in West Virginia

Blankenship’s move could complicate efforts to defeat Democrat Joe Manchin, but state law might keep him off the November ballot

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (CFP) — Two weeks after coming in a distant third in a Republican primary for West Virginia’s U.S. Senate seat, Don Blankenship, a former coal baron who went to prison for his role in a deadly mine disaster, has announced he has accepted a third-party nomination for the seat, a move that could harm Republican prospects for defeating incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin in November.

Don Blankenship

However, to get on the ballot, Blankenship may need to successfully challenge a state law that prevents losing candidates in major-party primaries from running in the general election under the banner of a third party, which he is vowing to do.

“The political establishment is determined to keep me—the most anti-establishment candidate in the nation—out of the United States Senate,” Blankenship said in a May 21 statement announcing that he had accepted a nomination from the Constitution Party.

“Although the establishment will likely begin their efforts against us by mounting a legal challenge to my candidacy, we are confident that—if challenged—our legal position will prevail, absent a politically motivated decision by the courts.”

Blankenship’s statement also included a comment from the Constitution Party’s vice chair, Phil Hudok, saying that the party looked upon Blankenship’s candidacy as a “great opportunity to put the principles of our party on display and to elect someone who will represent the values of West Virginians instead of those of the DC establishment.”

Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy, spent a year in federal prison for violating mine safety regulations after 29 miners died in an explosion in his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, the deadliest U.S. mine accident in the last 40 years.

He has insisted that federal mine inspectors were responsible for the accident and that he was unfairly prosecuted by the Obama Justice Department.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey

Republican leaders were relieved when Blankenship was defeated in the May 8 primary by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, after President Donald Trump intervened and urged his followers not to support Blankenship because he could not win a general election against Manchin.

However, since his defeat, Blankenship has refused to endorse Morrisey and has continued a public feud with the top Republican in the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spearheaded the stop-Blankenship effort.

To get on the ballot in West Virginia, a minor party candidate needs to collect roughly 4,400 petition signatures by August 1. However, under the state’s “sour grapes” law, candidates who lose a primary in May aren’t eligible to get on the November ballot through the petition process, according to a guide for candidates prepared by the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office

In his statement, Blankenship did not indicate what legal argument he planned to advance to try to get around the prohibition.

As attorney general, Morrisey would normally be responsible for defending the state’s legal position in court. A spokesman for Morrisey’s office declined say if he would recuse himself when asked by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

GOP leaders dodge bullet in West Virginia as Morrisey wins U.S. Senate primary

Jailed former mine owner Don Blankenship finishes a distant third

♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor

CHARLESTON, West Virginia (CFP) — Republican leaders in West Virginia are breathing a sigh of relief after Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the party’s U.S. Senate primary, ending an insurgent bid by Don Blankenship, who went to prison for his role in a deadly mine explosion.

Attorney General Patrick Morrisey

Pre-election fears that Blankenship would win the GOP primary and hand the race to Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin in November did not come to pass, as Blankenship finished a distant third.

Morrisey took 35 percent, defeating U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, with 29 percent and Blankenship with 20 percent.

In his victory speech, Morrisey cast the upcoming race against Manchin in ideological terms, criticizing “Washington elites” who he said “push their liberal agenda down our throats.”

“The spend our money, they raise our taxes, and they sneer at our culture, our values, our jobs and our priorities,” he said.

He also faulted Manchin — perhaps the Senate’s most conservative Democrat — with being insufficiently supportive of President Donald Trump.

“When President Trump needed Joe Manchin’s help on so many issues, Senator Manchin said no,” Morrisey said. “Senator Manchin has repeatedly sided with (Senate Minority Leader) Chuck Schumer and his liberal friends over President Trump.”

Morrisey, 50, was first elected attorney general in 2012, the first Republican to hold that post in nearly 70 years.

Although he now casts himself as a champion of West Virginia values, Morrisey grew up in New Jersey, where he ran for Congress in 2000. While working as a lobbyist in Washington in 2006, he moved to Jefferson County, in the West Virginia panhandle which is part of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

With Republicans clinging to a one-seat Senate majority, the race in West Virginia — which Trump won by a stunning 42 points in 2016 — presents a prime pickup opportunity.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin

Manchin, 70, seeking a second full term in the Senate, easily won the Democratic primary. Despite being a former two-term governor and serving in statewide office since 2001, Manchin is considered among the most vulnerable Democratic senators in the 2018 cycle because of the size of Trump’s win in 2016.

On the eve of the primary, Trump weighed in on Twitter against Blankenship, telling Mountaineer State voters that the former coal mine company CEO could not win in November. He urged them to vote for either Morrisey or Jenkins, though he stopped short of endorsing either man.

Morrisey paid tribute to Trump’s tweet in his victory speech: “Mr. President, if you’re watching right now, your tweet was h-u-u-uge.”

Blankenship, 68, spent a year in prison for violating mine safety laws stemming from a 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 miners. He launched his Senate bid after being released, pouring at least $3.5 million of his own money into his campaign to brand himself as an anti-establishment outsider.

Also on the primary ballot in West Virginia was the race in the 3rd U.S. House District, which Jenkins gave up to run for the Senate.

On the Republican side, State House Majority Whip Carol Miller of Crab Orchard won her party’s nomination. In November, she will face the Democratic nominee, State Senator Richard Ojeda, an Iraq war veteran who may be the best hope Democrats have for winning a House seat in West Virginia in 2018.

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