Middle ground left vacant in Donald-effect primaries
As primary season kicks into high gear, Republicans are engaged in nomination fights that are pulling the party to the right, leaving some leaders worried their candidates will be out of step with the broader electorate in November.
Primaries in four states today, all in places Donald Trump carried in 2016, showcase races in which GOP candidates are jockeying to be seen as the most conservative, most anti-Washington and most loyal to the president. It's evidence of the one-time outsider's deepening imprint on the Republican Party he commandeered less than two years ago.
In Indiana, Republicans will pick from three Senate candidates who have spent much of the race praising Mr Trump and bashing each other. In West Virginia, a former federal convict and coal baron has taken aim at Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell with racially charged accusations of corruption.
In Ohio, Republicans are certain to nominate someone more conservative than outgoing GOP Governor John Kasich, a 2016 presidential candidate, moderate and frequent Trump critic. Even Kasich's former running mate, Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor, has pledged to unwind some of Kasich's centrist policies, including the expansion of the Medicaid government insurance programme following Democrats' 2010 health insurance overhaul.
With Mr Trump's job approval hanging around 40pc and the GOP-run Congress less than half that, the abandonment of the middle has some Republicans raising alarms. "The far left and the far right always think they are going to dominate these elections," said John Weaver, a Trump critic and top strategist to Kasich, who has been become a near-pariah in the primary to succeed him.
"You may think it's wise in a primary to handcuff yourself to the president," he said. "But when the ship goes down, you may not be able to get the cuffs off."
North Carolina Republicans will weigh in on the fate of Republican Representative Robert Pittenger, facing a primary challenger who almost upset him two years ago. Pittenger features Mr Trump prominently in his campaign. Challenger Mark Harris, a prominent pastor, has tried to turn the table, saying Pittenger is a creature of Washington who refuses to help Trump "drain that swamp".
Tough primaries certainly don't have to be disastrous. They often gin up voter attention and engagement, and can signal strong turnout in the general election. Dallas Woodhouse, who runs the North Carolina Republican Party, said candidates benefit because they must "make their arguments and voters become more aware of the election."
Mr Trump and his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton each survived internal party battles in 2016. Ms Clinton won the national popular vote that year, but in the states that mattered most - Ohio and North Carolina, among them - wary Republicans gravitated back to Mr Trump while Clinton struggled to hit the usual Democratic targets.
Few Republicans look at West Virginia and see helpful enthusiasm. Former coal executive Don Blankenship has accused McConnell of creating jobs for "China people" and charges that the senator's "China family" has given him millions of dollars. McConnell's wife is Trump's transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, who was born in Taiwan.
In several primaries, Democrats are watching with delight, and having less trouble aligning behind nominees. The chief beneficiaries would be Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, both sitting on healthy campaign accounts after avoiding their own primary fights.
Democrats must flip about two dozen seats to reclaim a House majority, and they must do it with Republican-run legislatures having drawn many districts to the GOP's advantage. Senate Democrats are just two seats shy of a majority, but must defend 26 incumbents, 10 in states where Trump won, including Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia.