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GOP primaries have become Trump loyalty contests. But is that a smart strategy for November?

First Read is your briefing from "Meet the Press" and the NBC Political Unit on the day's most important political stories and why they matter.
Image: Todd Rokita
A sign promoting the campaign of GOP Senate candidate Todd Rokita is shown along a state highway in Brownsburg, Indiana on April 17, 2018.Michael Conroy / AP

WASHINGTON — Maybe the clearest sign that the GOP is now firmly Donald Trump’s party is how Tuesday’s Republican Senate primaries in Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia have turned into loyalty contests over who’s the Trump-iest candidate and the president’s greatest defender.

  • In Indiana, Republican Senate candidate Todd Rokita is airing a TV ad lumping Robert Mueller with Nancy Pelosi, asking: “Who’s tough enough to stop the witch hunt?”; GOP opponent Luke Messer has led the charge to get Trump considered for the Nobel Peace Prize; and the third candidate, Mike Braun, has an ad saying that he’s running as a political outsider “because President Trump paved the way.”
  • In Ohio, GOP gubernatorial frontrunner Mike DeWine has attacked GOP opponent Mary Taylor, saying she “never endorsed Donald Trump.” He also boasts of “fighting for Trump’s travel ban.” Meanwhile, Taylor’s campaign says “Trump and Taylor will build the wall … and ban sanctuary cities,” and that she, like Trump, is “made tough on illegal immigration.”
  • And in West Virginia, Republican candidate Evan Jenkins is running an ad charging that rival Patrick Morrisey “betrayed Donald Trump, scheming against Trump’s campaign in West Virginia, denying our choice for president.” (You can see a fact-check of that claim here, by the way.) Morrisey, for his part, says he’s “pro-life, pro-gun, pro-coal, pro-Trump,” and that he’s a “pro-Trump conservative fighter.” And, of course — even as Trump urges West Virginia voters to reject Don Blankenship — the former coal exec has been using Trump’s “swamp” language and claiming that he, like Trump, has been “a victim of fake news and a corrupt Obama DOJ.” In fact, NBC’s Ali Vitali reports that, in response to Trump’s tweet, Blankenship says “As some have said, I am Trumpier than Trump and this morning proves it.”

While hugging Trump might be the only way for Republicans to win a contested GOP primary in the Trump Era — after all, there’s a good reason why Bob Corker and Jeff Flake aren’t running for re-election — is it good politics for the general election, even in red states?

Our colleague Dante Chinni argues that it might not be. For starters, Trump’s huge winning margins in Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia weren’t just because of the president’s popularity in those states. They were also because of Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity — and the Democratic nominees in November won’t be Hillary Clinton.

Indeed, Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., won Indiana by six points in 2012 (50 percent to 44 percent), even when Obama lost the state by 10 points (54 percent to 44 percent). Sherrod Brown won Ohio by 6 pts in 2012 (51 percent to 45 percent) when Obama won it by 3 pts (51 percent to 48 percent). And Joe Manchin won West Virginia by 25 points in 2012 (61 percent to 36 percent) when Obama lost it by 27 points.

The other factor is that Trump supporters haven’t necessarily come out for GOP candidates in the top races of 2017 and 2018.In PA-18, Democrat Conor Lamb won in a district Trump won by 20 points in 2016; in Alabama, Democrat Doug Jones narrowly won even though Trump won the state by 28 points; and in Virginia last year, Democrat Ralph Northam cruised to victory even as Republican Ed Gillespie campaigned with Trump-like messaging on immigration and gangs.

“GOP Senate hopefuls in Indiana and West Virginia may be tying themselves to Trump with the hopes of rerunning the 2016 presidential race in their states,” Chinni writes. “But that may prove difficult and the names on the ballot this fall will likely be the most important determining factor in the Indiana and West Virginia Senate races. It’s hard to make yourself into Donald Trump – or a known opponent into Hillary Clinton.”

Trump rejects Blankenship in West Virginia, telling voters “Remember Alabama”

Speaking of Trump and the primaries, the president this morning explicitly urged West Virginia voters to reject Don Blankenship’s bid, warning that — like Roy Moore in Alabama — he would cost the party a Senate seat in the general election. “To the great people of West Virginia we have, together, a really great chance to keep making a big difference,” he tweeted. “Problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can’t win the General Election in your State...No way! Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrisey!” (The message echoes what Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted last week.)

In response to Trump’s tweet, Ali Vitali reports that Blankenship’s campaign sends on this response: “The President is a very busy man and he doesn’t know me and he doesn’t know how flawed my two main opponents are in this primary. The establishment is misinforming him because they do not want me to be in the US Senate and promote the President’s agenda … Tomorrow, West Virginia will send the swamp a message—no one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote. As some have said, I am Trumpier than Trump and this morning proves it.”

The fact that the White House is weighing in at this late hour certainly gives credence to rumors of GOP worries that Blankenship is surging, also evidenced by the late anti-Blankenship push by Patrick Morrisey. But it could also set Trump up for another embarrassment if Blankenship wins on Tuesday anyway; after all, he also intervened in the Alabama Senate primary and the PA-18 race only to see his endorsements rejected by voters.

The cost of Trump’s credibility crisis

This was a heck of a lede last week from the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. “Does it bother anyone that President Trump has been caught lying? Does it bother anyone that this is not new? Does it bother anyone that the president has been shown to be a liar?”

The Republican candidates who are courting GOP primary voters (see above) don’t seem to be bothered, or at least have concluded that the Republican base is all in on Trump and willing to overlook his changing stories. But the electorate at large — including swing voters who were willing to give Trump a chance in 2016 in part because they questioned Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness — may be less forgiving.

And there’s also the question of what Trump’s eroded credibility would mean in a moment of real national emergency. As the Wall Street Journal editorial board put it: “Mr. Trump is compiling a record that increases the likelihood that few will believe him during a genuine crisis—say, a dispute over speaking with special counsel Robert Mueller or a nuclear showdown with Kim Jong Un. Mr. Trump should worry that Americans will stop believing anything he says.”

Is Giuliani playing “into the hands” of the Mueller probe?

On Sunday, Harvard Law professor emeritus Alan Dershowitz told one of us(!) that Trump’s legal team may be playing “into the hands” of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and he criticized the White House’s media strategy of putting allies like Rudy Giuliani out for extensive TV interviews. “The Trump team has to speak with a single narrative. They have to get their story clearly set out. It has to be put in writing. It shouldn't be put on television shows off the cuff,” Dershowitz said, citing Giuliani’s shifting stories on the payment made to Stormy Daniels by Trump attorney Michael Cohen. “It seems to me that the approach last week of the Trump team plays into the hands of Mueller's tactic to try, at any cost, to find technical violations against lower ranking people, so that they can be squeezed.”

McCain doesn’t want Trump at his funeral

Here’s what politics in 2018 is coming to: A renowned senator and former GOP presidential nominee is telegraphing that he doesn’t want a Republican president attending his funeral. The New York Times writes that McCain’s “intimates have informed the White House that their current plan for his funeral is for Vice President Mike Pence to attend the service to be held in Washington’s National Cathedral but not President Trump, with whom Mr. McCain has had a rocky relationship.”

More on the Arizona senator’s views of the president: “In [his new] book, Mr. McCain scorns Mr. Trump’s seeming admiration for autocrats and disdain for refugees. ‘He seems uninterested in the moral character of world leaders and their regimes,” he writes of the president. “The appearance of toughness or a reality show facsimile of toughness seems to matter more than any of our values. Flattery secures his friendship, criticism his enmity.’”

Gina Haspel considered dropping CIA nod

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported — and NBC confirmed — that CIA nominee Gina Haspel came close to withdrawing her nomination to lead the agency last week. From Kelly O’Donnell and Ken Dilanian: “Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump's nominee to be the permanent CIA director, broached the idea of withdrawing her nomination on Friday over concerns that reopening the debate over brutal interrogations could damage the spy agency, two U.S. officials told NBC News. Haspel, who faces a confirmation hearing Wednesday, decided to go ahead after a weekend phone call with Trump and after White House officials went to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, to reassure her that she had their support, the officials said.”

By the way, Trump tweeted this morning: “My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!”