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Tuesday's Primaries Will Reveal More Clues About Voters Ahead Of Midterms


The midterm elections are approaching. And a number of key states are holding primaries tomorrow - Ohio, North Carolina, Indiana and West Virginia. These are all states that Donald Trump won in 2016. And the outcomes in these races should give Republicans a sense of whether or not they're going to be able to hold onto Congress and important governorships come November - an effort that has been made more difficult because of the long list of Republicans choosing to retire this year. To get a better idea of what the GOP is facing tomorrow, we are joined now by Alex Conant. He is a Republican strategist, formerly the communications director for Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Hey, Alex, thanks for being here.

ALEX CONANT: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Let's start with West Virginia. The Republican Senate primary has one contender who's getting a lot of attention. This is a former coal executive, Don Blankenship. He's surging in the polls. He's got some momentum. It's complicated because this is a guy who has gone to prison for his role in the mine explosion in West Virginia in which dozens of people were killed. What does his popularity signal to you?

CONANT: Well, I think we'll find out in the primary how popular he actually is. I think part of the issue here is that - not unlike the 2015-2016 Republican presidential primary, where I was working for Marco Rubio, you had several mainstream candidates who spent most of the campaign beating up on each other. And then you had an outsider - sort of an interesting guy who was able to get a lot of media attention - Donald Trump, of course - who was able to surge at the end and capture the nomination. And Blankenship has a similar dynamic in West Virginia where you have the two mainstream candidates - have really been attacking each other a lot. And this really interesting character, who probably could not win a statewide general election, is getting a lot of media attention in the final days and, as a result, is surging in the polls.

MARTIN: We should say it's not just the time he spent in prison. He's also attacked mainstream Republicans. As you note, he's someone who's considered a political outsider, and he's trying to make hay out of this. I mean, that's something that ordinarily President Trump would admire. He likes an outsider. He likes someone who's trying to take down the establishment. He doesn't so much like Don Blankenship - it sounds like. The president tweeted about this race this morning saying Blankenship can't win in the general election in West Virginia. And in the same tweet, the president warns, quote, "remember Alabama." So the memory of Roy Moore looming large in the president's memory here.

CONANT: Well, absolutely. And look. I think Alabama is a good example of this - where the president went in, and his endorsed candidate in the primary did not win. And it was very embarrassing for both the president and the White House. And since then, he's sort of taken a step back from primaries. We haven't seen him get very engaged in a lot of the more controversial primaries we've seen around the country since Alabama. So I think it's interesting that now, 24 hours before voters in West Virginia go to the polls, the president is now getting involved in that race. It, to me, signals how seriously he takes the prospect of losing the Senate next fall if we can't win Senate seats like West Virginia.

MARTIN: Let's move to Ohio. Governor John Kasich is at the end of his term. He's got two Republican front-runners trying to replace him. But it's really interesting because Kasich is relatively popular in Ohio, but the front-runners in the Republican primary are keeping him at arm's length. They're not - they don't want to be campaigning with John Kasich. How come?

CONANT: John Kasich is really toxic with Republican voters. He may have decent job approval numbers overall in Ohio. But amongst Republican voters, they just don't like him. I was in the state a couple of months ago. And it was sort of strange how the Ohio State Republican Party seems to pretend that their governor is not a Republican.

MARTIN: They don't like him because he's been anti-Trump. He's taken a hard line against Donald Trump.

CONANT: That's exactly right. Every time you turn on cable TV, it seems like you see John Kasich out there attacking Donald Trump. I think that goes over very well with independent voters and maybe some Democrats. But Republicans really don't like to see Republican officials attacking Donald Trump. It's why you see John Kasich and in Arizona Jeff Flake being very unpopular with their own bases.

MARTIN: Although on the other hand, you've got Republican Congressman Charlie Dent, who announced recently that he's going to retire. And he was on our program and said, quote, "this election" - referring there to the midterms - "is going to be a referendum on the president of the United States and his conduct in office" - so clearly suggesting that Democrats - it's their moment come fall and that those who are tying themselves to Donald Trump might have a hard time. So which is it? Does he do help - does he help or harm?

CONANT: This is the challenge for every Republican running for public office right now. If you want to win a Republican primary, you can't be anti-Trump because the base loves Donald Trump. However, to win a general election, we're seeing unprecedented turnout amongst Democrats and independent voters who don't like Donald Trump because they are so excited to send a message to Washington to vote against Donald Trump. So you have Republicans who need to stand with the president in their primaries but then indicate some sort of independence in the general election. That is a really, really tough pathway. I think it's in part why we're seeing so many retirements.

MARTIN: Alex Conant, political strategist for the GOP. Alex, thanks for your time this morning. We appreciate it.

CONANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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