STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
For all the headwinds that Republicans face in this fall's election, they have one big advantage. Some Democratic lawmakers are running for re-election in states that President Trump won in 2016. Capturing just a few of those seats could help Republicans make up for losses elsewhere and plausibly even keep them in control of Congress. But first, Republicans must nominate candidates, which they do today as primaries come in four states. Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia all select Republican challengers to Democratic senators, and North Carolina holds a primary, too. NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow is in our studios once again.
Scott, good morning.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good morning.
INSKEEP: OK, what's of interest to you here?
DETROW: You'll be happy to know we can start with Indiana here.
INSKEEP: Thank you very much, appreciate that - my home state.
DETROW: Indiana and West Virginia are really interesting because they're both top Democratic targets this fall. There are Democratic incumbents - Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Joe Donnelly in Indiana - who won in very increasingly Republican states. And Republicans feel even in a year where the House of Representatives is in danger, where Democrats have huge headwinds, they feel like they can knock these two Democrats off.
INSKEEP: Yeah, Joe Donnelly won, I guess, in 2012 when a Republican candidate had a complete flameout, and so he has to wait and see if he gets that opportunity again. But then there's West Virginia, where Republicans have been worried about who they're going to nominate today. One of the candidates in this Republican primary is Don Blankenship. Would you describe who he is for those who haven't followed this story?
DETROW: Yeah. And I think your comment just there about the way that Donnelly won last time around is on point because Blankenship is a candidate that national Republicans have big concerns about. He is a former coal CEO. He actually spent a year in federal prison for charges related to an explosion that killed 29 people in one of his company's mines. And national Republicans do not want him as the nominee because of that and also because of things he's said on the campaign trail. Let's listen to an ad that Blankenship cut responding to some of this criticism from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "DITCH MITCH")
DON BLANKENSHIP: Swamp captain Mitch McConnell has created millions of jobs for China people. While doing so, Mitch has gotten rich. In fact, his China family has given him tens of millions of dollars. Mitch's swamp people are now running false, negative ads against me. They are also childishly calling me despicable and mentally ill. The war to drain the swamp and create jobs for West Virginia people has begun. I will beat Joe Manchin and ditch cocaine Mitch for the sake of the kids.
INSKEEP: So much to talk about there, Scott...
DETROW: So much.
INSKEEP: China people?
DETROW: Yeah, that is a reference to the fact McConnell is married to a Chinese-American woman, Elaine Chao. She's President Trump's transportation secretary. She previously served in the Bush administration. This ad - this statement has been denounced as a racist attack, and it underscores Republican concern that if Blankenship wins, he could be - this could be another situation like Alabama's special primary - special election last year, where a very flawed Republican candidate allowed a Democrat to win in a deep-red state.
INSKEEP: Isn't President Trump himself worried about that?
DETROW: He is. He tweeted yesterday - I'll read the tweet for you - (reading) Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can't win the general election in your state - no way. Remember Alabama. Vote Rep. Jenkins or AG Morrisey.
Those are the two other candidates - Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Congressman Evan Jenkins. Stories in recent days have shown that internal polls show a close race. It's hard to get a full grasp because there hasn't been much public polling. It's unclear how much of an impact this Trump tweet can make. It's just one tweet. And also, he didn't pick one of the two other candidates.
INSKEEP: Oh, which means the vote...
DETROW: So it could be a vote-splitting situation.
INSKEEP: ...The anti-Blankenship vote could be divided, for all we know. Scott, thanks very much.
DETROW: Thank you.
INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Detrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.