By Molly Ball
May 9, 2018

Ever since Donald Trump came along, American politics has been upside down and backwards, the conventional wisdom rendered useless and the old rules thrown out the window.

Political professionals and so-called experts have come to regard the American voter warily, never sure when the next weird surprise might come. Would Republicans vote for a man accused of pursuing teens for sex? Could a Democrat take a congressional district Trump won by 20 points? Sure, who knows?

And so, on Tuesday, the so-called experts braced for the latest insanity. But instead, in the first major round of primary voting ahead of the midterm elections, Republican and Democratic voters made generally safe choices. In primaries in West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana, voters eschewed the most out-there potential nominees, leading both party establishments to breathe a rare sigh of relief.

In West Virginia, Republican voters chose Patrick Morrisey, the state attorney general, as their Senate nominee to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Joe Manchin. A former Washington lobbyist who positioned himself as the conservative in the race, Morrisey edged out a sitting congressman, Evan Jenkins, as well the race’s most notorious contender, former coal-company CEO Don Blankenship, who spent a year in prison on mine-safety violations connected to an explosion that killed 29 miners.

In the final days of the campaign, Blankenship released a bizarre ad in which he assailed the unpopular Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, for favoring “China people” over Americans and vowed to “ditch Cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids.” President Donald Trump, rather ironically, warned the voters Blankenship was too crazy to win a general election, comparing him to Roy Moore, the Republican candidate who managed to lose the Senate election in Alabama in December. This time, the voters listened, giving Washington Republicans what they see as a better chance at taking the seat. Manchin is personally popular, but Trump won the state by 42 points in 2016.

In Ohio, it was Democrats who were on edge thanks to a late surge by a colorful but unconventional candidate. But the Establishment’s preferred candidate for governor, former state attorney general Richard Cordray, easily defeated Dennis Kucinich, the far-left former congressman and two-time presidential candidate. Cordray is hardly a corporate Democrat — his last job was as Elizabeth Warren’s handpicked leader of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — but he lacked Kucinich’s crusading zeal and New Age vibes. The result was a reminder that, for all the apparent political energy on the far left, hard-core liberals don’t necessarily have the numbers to win Democratic primaries (see also: Bernie Sanders, who did not win the 2016 presidential primary). In November, Cordray will face Republican state Attorney General Mike DeWine, who also easily fended off a primary challenger Tuesday. It will be a rematch of sorts: DeWine defeated Cordray for his current position in 2010.

There was no obviously radioactive candidate in the Indiana Senate primary, where Republicans chose Mike Braun, the CEO of an auto-parts distributor, over two sitting members of Congress. Braun spent millions on ads depicting himself as a political outsider, though he previously served in the state legislature. His opponents scurried to position themselves as the most loyal to Trump: one, Todd Rokita, campaigned with a cardboard cutout of the president, while the other, Luke Messer, wanted to nominate Trump for a Nobel peace prize. In this and other Republican primaries, the candidates have clearly concluded that Trump boosterism is their base voters’ overriding priority, more than any particular credential or policy stance. But in Braun, Washington Republicans hope they will have a nominee who can contrast favorably with the Democratic incumbent, Joe Donnelly, by running against the mess in Washington.

It is testament to the distinctiveness of the president’s personality that “Trumpy” or “Trumpian” has become shorthand for every exaggerated or outlandish political gesture, from not-so-veiled racism (Blankenship) to affection for dictators (Kucinich) to questionably gotten riches (Braun). Voters of both parties remain obviously annoyed with the corruption and disarray they perceive in D.C., and both parties are in the throes of identity crises that have yet to be resolved. But that doesn’t mean they’re just going to go for, as one Republican congressman put it, “the craziest son of a bitch in the race.”

Tuesday’s primaries showed that Democrats and Republicans alike might be looking for something more prosaic: candidates who can follow the traditional rules of politics — and, hopefully, win.

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