Democrats in Rust Belt: Stay Close to Trump, but Not Too Close

A polling place in Dallas, W.Va., on Tuesday. Primary elections were also held in Ohio and Indiana.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A day after the first major primary contests of 2018, the political armies on the left and the right repositioned themselves for an intense general election across Rust Belt states that President Trump carried two years ago — and where his personality and record will define the battles leading to the midterms.

Three states that voted Tuesday — Ohio, West Virginia and Indiana — were the heart of Trump country in 2016, and the president is moving aggressively to hold onto them; he has already intervened in one Senate race and plans to campaign in another one Thursday.

But historically this heartland region was in play for both parties, and Democrats hope it will be again, after earlier two-party contests around the country have seen a wave of disaffected voters reject Republican candidates in places as diverse as suburban Pittsburgh and Tidewater Virginia.

Republican strategy is straightforward: The victors on Tuesday heaped praise on Mr. Trump, inviting him to visit their states to campaign, and tarred opponents as “liberals,” while invoking the name “Chuck Schumer,” the New York senator and Democratic leader, as an epithet to hurl at opponents.

“You’ve been to this state now four times,” Patrick Morrisey, the Republican Senate nominee in West Virginia, said in his acceptance speech, addressing the president. “I’d like you to come back as many times as you can between now and November.”

The pressure on Mr. Morrisey’s opponent, Senator Joe Manchin III, mounted immediately on Wednesday as an outside group allied with Mr. Trump released an ad urging West Virginians to call Mr. Manchin and demand he vote for Gina Haspel, the White House nominee to lead the C.I.A., who is facing tough questions about the agency’s use of torture on suspected terrorists.

Mr. Manchin announced later in the day that he would vote for Ms. Haspel, giving the White House a sheen of bipartisan support. “I’ll always try to work with the president of the United States, because as an American you want the president to succeed and the country to succeed,” Mr. Manchin said through a spokesman.

His stance showed how Democratic incumbents in states Mr. Trump carried must thread a needle — showing voters they respect the president, but distancing themselves from some of his major policies.

In Ohio, once a swing state but increasingly shading red, Democrats believe the key to winning back the governor’s mansion and the Legislature, as well as retaining a United States Senate seat, is to focus on Ohio issues and not get mired in the discord of Washington.

“You don’t win Ohio if you get pulled off message and you’re basically debating Trump or making every election here a referendum,” David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party, said on Tuesday.

But maintaining that posture may prove difficult. Bright and early on Wednesday, Mr. Trump took aim at the Democratic nominee for governor, Richard Cordray, a bête noire of Washington Republicans for his past leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Congratulating Mike DeWine, the Republican nominee who will face Mr. Cordray, the president wrote in a tweet, “His Socialist opponent in November should not do well, a big failure in last job!”

As the races proceed, surrogates for Mr. Cordray like Senator Elizabeth Warren are likely to take hammer and tongs to the president to rally the Democratic base.

For his part, Mr. Cordray wants to focus on “kitchen-table issues that Ohioans tell us are most on their minds,” he said in an interview at his campaign office, where he lounged in socks but no shoes.

In an interview, Mr. DeWine rebuffed the suggestion of an impending Democratic surge.

“Ohio is always a competitive state, but this idea of this big blue wave that’s rolling through the country certainly missed Ohio last night,” he said, pointing out that more voters turned out for him on Tuesday than for Mr. Cordray. He received roughly 495,000 votes compared with the roughly 423,000 Mr. Cordray received, according to election night figures.

Democratic leaders may not admit to seeking a “referendum” on the president in states where he remains popular. Yet, they know that is precisely what has driven the Democratic base to turn out strongly in earlier contests n the past year in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Arizona, where Democrats made unexpected gains.

The country’s next high-profile special election is in August for an open House seat near Columbus, Ohio. Once a solidly Republican seat in a district Mr. Trump carried easily, the race is now a tossup, according to nonpartisan analysts, thanks to an energized Democratic base. The candidates were finalized on Tuesday: Danny O’Connor, a Democratic official in Franklin County, will oppose Troy Balderson, a Republican state senator.

In the United States Senate race, Ohio Republicans chose Representative James B. Renacci to try to unseat Senator Sherrod Brown, whose old-school progressivism — opposing trade deals, championing labor — aligns with part of Mr. Trump’s blue-collar appeal.

“My message is consistent and will continue to be — I’m going to fight for the little guy regardless of whether she works in an office or works in a diner,” Mr. Brown said in a telephone interview. He suggested he would not make a point of going after Mr. Trump.

“I will do what I do,” he said. “I don’t have this grand strategy. I think if you do this job the way you should, elections largely take care of themselves.”

In Indiana, Senator Joe Donnelly, one of the most vulnerable Democrats, noted that he had voted with Mr. Trump 62 percent of the time in the Senate and had backed 70 percent of the president’s nominees.

“If President Trump is right on an issue, I will be with him every time,” Mr. Donnelly said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday night. “When he’s not, I will pass. My job is not to be a cheerleader for the president, my job is not to be a cheerleader for a party leader or a party.”

Mr. Donnelly is matched against Mike Braun, a wealthy businessman who ran as a political outsider, and who Republicans believe will serve as validation of Mr. Trump’s policies and anti-Washington appeal.

“This will be the ratification of Donald Trump,” said Robert T. Grand, a lawyer in Indianapolis and one of the state’s most prominent Republicans. “Everybody says Donald Trump is in trouble. This will say maybe not.”

Mr. Manchin, who has long found a way to win in West Virginia by creating a Democratic identity apart from the national party, faces perhaps the toughest race of his life in a state Mr. Trump won by more than 40 percentage points. His opponent, Mr. Morrisey, said on election night, “When President Trump needed Joe Manchin’s help on so many issues, Senator Manchin said, ‘No.’”

He mentioned the Republican tax cuts, repeal of the Affordable Care Act and judicial picks.

Mr. Manchin can be expected to play up his folksy manner — not long ago he publicized a visit to a Washington restaurant serving pepperoni rolls, a West Virginia specialty — and to attack Mr. Morrisey as a transplant from New Jersey who was born in Brooklyn.

Sherry Mollett, 71, from rural Boone County in the southern West Virginia coal country, represents the voters whose support Mr. Manchin needs to lock down. Historically a Democrat, she voted for Mr. Trump two years ago. “I felt in my heart that he might help Boone County bring in jobs and make America great again,” Ms. Mollett said.

On Tuesday she cast an ambivalent vote for Mr. Manchin. “I think he loves West Virginia,” she said. “I don’t think he’s done a whole lot up in Washington. I’m still waiting for more from him. He better get busy or I won’t vote for him the next time he runs.”

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