Mainstream GOP groups wade deeper into key Senate races, as worries about 'the wrong candidate' rise

Friday , April 13, 2018 - 1:01 PM

Sean Sullivan

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

The mainstream wing of the Republican Party is wading deeper into a pair of key Senate races, opposing controversial GOP candidates who could make it harder to hold the majority in the midterms.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released its first television commercial of the campaign Friday, a 30-second advertisement touting Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss. Hyde-Smith faces a challenge from insurgent conservative Chris McDaniel, a foe of Senate GOP leaders.

In West Virginia, a Republican-led organization called Mountain Families PAC has filed paperwork to run ads opposing GOP Senate candidate Don Blankenship. The former coal executive has served a one-year prison sentence for conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards after an accident killed 29 miners.

The advertising investments come as attention in the party has shifted toward preserving control of the Senate, as worries about losing the House majority grow each day.

Republicans are defending a slim 51-49 Senate majority in the midterms. Democrats are defending far more seats, including many in states that Trump won, like West Virginia. But GOP officials are on edge about a handful of seats they are trying to hold onto, including Mississippi.

Steven Law, the president of the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican group, said in a recent interview with Fox News Channel that he was concerned about “the wrong candidate getting nominated” in West Virginia and Mississippi.

The new Mississippi ad casts Hyde-Smith is a “conservative” and highlights her ties to the state’s popular Republican governor, Phil Bryant.

“There’s a reason Governor Bryant chose Cindy to go shake up Washington,” the narrator says. “Because conservative Cindy Hyde-Smith will fight for Mississippi ‘til the cows come home.”

The Chamber of Commerce, which is the nation’s largest business lobby, said the ad is backed by a six-figure investment.

Hyde-Smith, the former state agriculture and commerce commissioner, was sworn into the Senate earlier this week. Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to the Senate to succeed Republican Thad Cochran, who stepped down earlier this month amid health issues.

Hyde-Smith is also running in a November special election to fill out the remainder of Cochran’s term. McDaniel, who nearly defeated Cochran in a nasty 2014 primary, is also seeking the seat. He has been attacking Hyde-Smith for being a former Democrat.

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. urged Bryant to appoint himself and run. Neither has endorsed Hyde-Smith in the campaign so far.

A pair of Democrats has entered in the race, including Mike Espy, a former U.S. House member who was Mississippi’s first black member of Congress since Reconstruction.

There will be no partisan primaries. If no candidate gets a majority of the vote on Nov. 6, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff. Republican strategists fear that if it comes down to McDaniel and a Democrat, McDaniel’s hard-line views could put the seat in play, even in a heavily conservative state.

In West Virginia, Republicans are trying to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III. Like Mississippi, the state voted heavily for Trump in 2016. But first, the GOP is dealing with a contested primary campaign that will culminate with a vote on May 8.

Federal Communications Commission records, which were first reported by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, show Mountain Families PAC opposes Blankenship and has reserved air time on West Virginia television.

While the identities of group’s donors were not immediately clear on Friday, the treasurer is Benjamin Ottenhoff, federal campaign finance records show. He has been affiliated with the National Republican Congressional Committee in the past, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Republicans are worried a Blankenship primary win could cost them a chance at the seat. Earlier this month, 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 in West Virginia.

Ottenhoff did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

It is not uncommon for groups with locally-themed names and national ties to pop up in key contests. With many voters wary of national interference, there is incentive to try to shield out-of-state meddling.

In last year’s Alabama Senate special election, Democrats started a group called Highway 31, named for the road connecting Alabama’s four major cities. Post-election records showed the national group Senate Majority PAC spent more than $3 million through a Highway 31 to help Democratic Doug Jones win.

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