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Politics & Government

Interpreting The GOP Primary Results

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're trying to understand what message voters sent yesterday. They were primaries in a handful of states. In West Virginia, a coal magnate, Don Blankenship, who has served time in jail and declared himself Trumpier (ph) than Trump, lost his Senate primary despite a late surge in the polls. But in Republican races elsewhere, outsider candidates defeated sitting members of Congress, raising some questions about the party and its best strategy to hold its majorities in Congress. Steven Law is here with us in the studio. He's the CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC that raises money for establishment Republican candidates. Thanks so much for coming back in. We appreciate it.

STEVEN LAW: Thanks so much for having me.

GREENE: So Don Blankenship lost a close Senate race primary in West Virginia. How nervous were you that he was going to win that race? This is a guy who spent a lot of time, as we mentioned, time in prison, also time attacking your old boss, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

LAW: Yeah. We were very concerned that if he were the Republican nominee, we would not be competitive for that seat. But as it turned out, I think the Blankenship surge story was kind of a concoction of the D.C. media. Blankenship went after McConnell - and more pointedly, after McConnell's wife - because he knew that the Washington press corps would find that an irresistible narrative.

GREENE: Although there were polls suggesting that he was doing pretty well. It wasn't just the media saying it.

LAW: There were some internal polls that campaigns had. But as Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight pointed out, in the midst of this kind of fog of war in the last few days, you have to be very careful about internal polls that campaigns release. Our data showed that Blankenship had extremely high negatives, that he was way behind and, in fact, was in third place. And so I think it's hard to figure out how a guy went from first place in his own claims in the stories that were printed in places like Axios and Politico to third place and a very distant third place in just a few days. I don't think he really had the surge that he was talking about. It's just a story that he was able to perpetuate that a lot of people bought.

GREENE: Although isn't it - it doesn't seem like it is just a narrative created in the media if you look at some of these other races. I mean, you had an outsider candidate last night in Indiana, businessman Mike Braun. He beat two sitting members of Congress in a Senate primary fight. It was a nasty, nasty race. He's tied himself, you know, to President Trump. He's going to be the candidate now. I mean, something seems to be happening in terms of what voters are saying about the establishment.

LAW: I think what we saw and we've seen for a while is that in Republican primaries, Washington is the enemy. You run against Washington. That's an effective strategy not only in primaries, probably in general elections as well. And I think Mike Braun, the businessman, did a good job of that. He's an outsider. He's also an insider. He's a state legislator. He's somebody who is well-known and been around the state a long time. At the same time, his rhetoric, his approach to winning that primary was very different from Don Blankenship's. He gave himself a lot of running room for the general election. And then you have kind of a split decision the result in Ohio's 12th District, where you had a decidedly establishment state legislator beat out the Freedom Caucus and Club for Growth, very much more moderate candidate winning that primary against somebody who was arguably a much more insurgency, Trumpy (ph) kind of candidate.

GREENE: We had Charlie Dent on the program, Pennsylvania Republican Congressman who is deciding to leave Congress, has always seen himself as sort of a moderate voice in Congress. He said on our air, this election will be a referendum on the president of the United States and his conduct in office. Do you agree with that?

LAW: Well, I think mid-term elections generally are a first job review on a president's performance. And I think that's something that we could probably expect this time around. One thing I would note is that, you know, we've been reading so many stories about this gigantic blue wave that is going to hit elections this fall that we've stopped looking at some of the contrary indications - the president's job approval slowly inching up, the generic ballot closing, the gap that we've had against - versus Democrats has been closing. The thing I'm concerned about is less where the president stands or where the generic ballot is, but we do have an enthusiasm gap. Democrats are very enthusiastic, very excited about this election, Republicans somewhat less so. And I think that's the challenge that we've got to overcome.

GREENE: In just a few seconds, is President Trump and his record a good thing for Republicans to run on this fall?

LAW: I think we've got an economy that's resurgent. I think he's achieving some real foreign policy goals. And those are going to be things that I think that we can talk about effectively in addition to tax reform and how it's improving people's lives.

GREENE: Steven Law heads the Senate Leadership Fund. Always great to have you in here. Thanks so much, Steven.

LAW: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.