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It was a tough primary night for D.C. 'insiders' — specifically, members of Congress

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.
by Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann /  / Updated 
Image: Todd Rokita
Senate candidate Todd Rokita speaks at a gun-rights rally at the state capitol on April 14, 2018, in Indianapolis, Indiana.Michael Conroy / AP

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WASHINGTON — Yes, the Republican Party avoided a disaster with the defeat of Don Blankenship in last night’s GOP primary in West Virginia. But maybe the biggest takeaway from Tuesday’s primaries in Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and West Virginia was that it was a bad night for candidates who were Washington insiders – and specifically, members of Congress.

Despite touting their support for Donald Trump, GOP Reps. Luke Messer, Todd Rokita and Evan Jenkins all went down to defeat against candidates who could claim an outsider mantle: Businessman Mike Braun in Indiana and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in West Virginia. And in North Carolina, we saw the defeat of the first incumbent of the year: Republican Rep. Robert Pittenger, who lost his primary to a former Baptist pastor who painted Pittenger as part of the Washington “swamp.”

Primaries have very different dynamics than general elections, of course, and the D.C. establishment still has plenty to be relieved about, particularly after Blankenship’s defeat (see this tweet from Mitch McConnell’s campaign last night).

But the anti-D.C. fervor could still be a wakeup call for incumbent Republicans, who will be facing plenty of Washington outsider Democrats in competitive races in the fall.

Answering our seven questions about the primaries

Yesterday, we asked seven questions that we had heading into last night’s primary contests. With the votes counted, here’s what we learned.

1. Will Republicans be better off tomorrow in Indiana and West Virginia — or worse off?

ANSWER: Better off on paper. Indiana Senate nominee Mike Braun isn’t as bloodied as Messer or Rokita were in their “Hoosier Brawl.” When it comes to West Virginia, Republicans can obviously breathe a sigh of relief that Blankenship isn’t going to be their nominee. But winner Patrick Morissey — who grew up in New Jersey and once ran for Congress there — is potentially vulnerable to being viewed as an out-of-stater versus Democrat Joe Manchin.

2. How potent is race and racism in West Virginia?

ANSWER: After all the coverage of his “China people” attacks on Mitch McConnell, Blankenship ultimately finished third.

3. Does Trump fall short in yet another race where he weighed in?

ANSWER: No. Trump’s four-race losing streak (after weighing in for defeated candidates Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Luther Strange and Roy Moore in Alabama and Rick Saccone in Pennsylvania) came to an end last night when West Virginia voters rejected Blankenship after Trump explicitly urged them not to support the ex-coal baron.

4. Has party-switching become one of the GOP’s cardinal sins?

ANSWER: It’s a mixed bag. Evan Jenkins, who switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party in 2013, lost. But Mike Braun, who voted until recently in Democratic primaries, won despite a barrage of attacks from opponents on his party loyalty.

5. Does “the party decides” still apply to Democrats in Ohio’s gubernatorial primary?

ANSWER: Yes. The candidate with more endorsements nationally and statewide (Richard Cordray) handily beat the candidate with few endorsements outside the pro-Sanders Our Revolution and the Cleveland Plain Dealer (Dennis Kucinich).

6. How fired up are Democrats?

ANSWER: It’s also a mixed bag. In Ohio, Republicans cast just shy of 150,000 more total votes in their gubernatorial primary between Mike DeWine and Mary Taylor (827k votes) than Democrats cast in their Cordray/Kucinich contest (680k votes). In the OH-12 special House primary (more on that below), Democrats cast about 44k votes compared to 68k on the Republican side. But in North Carolina’s Ninth District — which is now an even more appealing pickup opportunity for Democrats after the defeat of incumbent Pittenger — Democrats outvoted Republicans in their respective contests, 46k votes to 35k votes.

7. Who comes out on top in the Ohio special election primaries to replace Pat Tiberi?

ANSWER: As of this writing, NBC News has not declared a winner in the closely divided contest between Troy Balderson (who had Tiberi’s endorsement) and Melanie Leneghan (who had the backing of conservative Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan.) But the NRCC touted Balderson as the winner after the Associated Press called the race for him late last night. On the Democratic side, it was a lopsided win for Franklin County Recorder Danny O’Connor.

Rep. Robert Pittenger becomes the first incumbent of the year to be defeated in a primary

Pittenger, who was first elected in 2012 to his Charlotte-area seat, lost his primary to former Baptist pastor Mark Harris. Democrats had already been eyeing the district as a potential pickup opportunity even before last night, and now they feel even more fired up about potentially winning the seat. Democratic nominee Dan McCready, a Marine Corps veteran and entrepreneur, fits the Conor Lamb mold. He’s also got $1.2m in the bank as of the last FEC filing, while Harris has less than $75k.

Recapping last night’s California gubernatorial debate

Things got a little feisty in last night’s California gubernatorial debate in San Jose — moderated by one of us(!) —with candidates reserving some of their sharpest barbs for frontrunner Democrat Gavin Newsom.

From the LA Times: “The candidates running to become California's next governor aggressively clashed in the most contentious and consequential face-off of the campaign Tuesday night, trying to make the case that they are best suited to lead the state as voters begin receiving ballots in the mail. Democrat Gavin Newsom took the stage with a target on his back as the clear front-runner. And the attacks grew deeply personal as the candidates were asked about marital infidelities Newsom and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had while they were in office. Newsom had an affair with a close friend's wife who worked for him when he was mayor of San Francisco.”

And from The San Francisco Chronicle: “For much of the 90-minute session, it was five against one, with the former San Francisco mayor fielding nonstop attacks from the other candidates looking to finish in the top two and advance to the November election to replace termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown.”

A few more of the toughest attacks from the evening:

  • Republican Travis Allen to Gavin Newsom, about his marital infidelities while in office: “If you can't trust Gavin with his best friend's wife, how can you trust him with your state?” Newsom shot back at Allen: "It's hard, with respect, to hear from Mr. Allen, who is a devout supporter of Donald Trump, talk about the issue of sexual harassment.”
  • Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa to Newsom, on his sparing with the White House: “Talking and tweeting about Trump every day is not going to solve problems, it's not going to fix our healthcare or our schools.” Newsom responded: "I don't wake up every day thinking of how to take shots at Trump.”
  • Democrat Delaine Eastin, on “character” questions: “I do believe that character does matter. I do believe that being unfaithful is something that is terrible … What’s missing is courage and vision and heart and a sense of self-control that makes certain that you are focused on the issues at hand and not on how much fun you can have. At the end of the day, it is inappropriate for any boss in any businesses or any government agency to make passes at women that work for them.”

By the way, Newsom had one of the big laughs of the night, when he was asked to weigh in on California’s top-two primary system: “You know my position, Chuck. I think a Republican would be ideal in the general election.”

Haspel will say she won’t reinstate “enhanced interrogation”

CIA director nominee Gina Haspel faces senators for her confirmation hearing today. A preview from NBC’s Alex Johnson: “Gina Haspel, President Donald Trump's nominee to be permanent director of the CIA, will promise senators not to resume harsh interrogation techniques that critics have characterized as torture, according to excerpts of her remarks released Tuesday ahead of her confirmation hearing on Wednesday.”

More: “According to the excerpts from her testimony, Haspel plans to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday morning that she understands that many people would like to know her views on the interrogation techniques, which were instituted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Her actual opinion, however, isn't included in the excerpts, but in them, she promises, "clearly and without reservation, that under my leadership CIA will not restart such a detention and interrogation program."

Daniels' lawyer: Cohen got $500K from Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg

From NBC’s Sarah Fitzpatrick, Tracy Connor, Ton Winter and Ben Collins: “Stormy Daniels' attorney claimed Tuesday that President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen received $500,000 from a company controlled by a Russian oligarch, deposited into an account for a company also used to pay off the adult film actress. Daniels' attorney, Michael Avenatti, also detailed other transactions he said were suspicious, including deposits from drug giant Novartis, the state-run Korea Aerospace Industries, and AT&T — which confirmed it paid Cohen's company for "insights" into the Trump administration.”

More: “If true, Avenatti's claims, made in a dossier posted to Twitter, could add a new dimension to the federal investigation into Cohen. NBC News has reviewed financial documents that appear to support Avenatti’s account of the transactions.”

Rundown on the 2018 midterms

And finally, here’s a summary of all our non-May-8-primary reporting on yesterday on NBC’s Rundown blog: Barbara Comstock challenger Alison Friedman is highlighting her gun reform stance in her first ad, writes NBC’s Renee Hickman.... Tupelo mayor Jason Shelton is dropping his Senate bid in Mississippi, in an effort to clear the field for Democrat Mike Espy… Jan Brewer endorsed Martha McSally in Arizona … and Jon Tester is touting his support from veterans in the wake of attacks from Trump over the VA.

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