Watch CBSN Live

Commentary: A very good election night for the GOP

Indiana Republican Mike Braun is not a witch. He hasn't suggested "Second Amendment remedies" for an overreaching Congress, nor does he have anything to say about "legitimate rape." 

Instead, Braun is a businessman outsider who likes President Trump, is an effective campaigner, and has a history of voting in Democratic primaries in his blue-ish corner of Indiana. In other words, he's just about the perfect candidate to take on an incumbent Democrat like Sen. Joe Donnelly in a state Trump carried by 19 points.

And on Tuesday he won the Indiana Republican primary, part of a very good night for the GOP.

Tuesday night could have gone very differently, and Republicans knew it. In the past few days, names like Christine O'Donnell ("Not a witch"), Todd Akin ("legitimate rape") and Sharron Angle ("Second Amendment remedies") have been popping up in conservative conversations. They're all Republican candidates who won primaries in 2010 but, due to their weaknesses or perceived extremism, lost otherwise winnable Senate seats in Delaware, Missouri and Nevada. 

Heading into Tuesday night, the fear among Republicans has been that, in the era of Trump, the GOP would experience a re-play of 2010 as primary voters chose candidates too "Trumpy" to win a general election.

The top of that list was mining executive Don Blankenship in West Virginia, the state that should give the GOP it's best chance to pick up a U.S. Senate seat this November. It's the most pro-Trump state in the country -- he won it by 42 points -- and it has a vulnerable Democratic incumbent, Sen. Joe Manchin.

Manchin—a former governor—is well-liked. But he's also a Democrat who voted against Trump's signature efforts like repealing Obamacare and cutting taxes. Which is why so many Democrats were pulling for Blankenship. Or as he's known to people who don't follow politics very closely, the "China People" guy.

Calling Republican Don Blankenship a "problematic" candidate is like saying the 8-26 Baltimore Orioles are struggling a bit at the plate. In the era of "Lock Her Up!" politics, Blankenship has already done his time in prison. Literally. He spent a year in the federal pen in the wake of an explosion that killed 29 people in a mine owned by his company.

Declaring himself "More Trump than Trump," Blankenship ran ads attacking "Cocaine Mitch" McConnell and accusing the top Republican in the U.S. Senate of corruption involving his wife, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, and her family—a storyline the resulted in headlines like "West Virginia Pol Uses the Word 'Negro' to Defend Racist Ad About 'China People.'"

Blankenship's attempt to run as a Trump wannabe suffered a setback when the actual Donald Trump tweeted out "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!"

It worked.  Blankenship came in third as West Virginia Republicans nominated Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Like Braun, Morrisey is a cross-over figure on the Right: The first Republican elected AG in West Virginia since 1928, he's already won statewide, was endorsed in the primary by populist Steve Bannon, and yet remains popular among mainstream Republicans. Republican primary voters chose wisely.

In Ohio, Attorney General Mike DeWine, the "Establishment" candidate, beat John Kasich's Lt. Governor Mary Taylor in the primary for governor. Trump-friendly Congressman Jim Renacci will be the US Senate candidate. Trump won Ohio, but nothing like his margins in Indiana and West Virginia. Republican candidates there face uphill fights, but both candidates have legitimate shots at winning.

And keep in mind if Democrats lose even one of the close races in West Virginia, Indiana, Missouri or North Dakota, taking the Senate becomes all-but-impossible.

This year is going to be bad for the GOP for all sorts of historic reasons. But their best-case scenario has always been candidates who get the Trump base excited without alienating more centrist voters. By that measure, Tuesday night was a big win for the GOP.

View CBS News In