MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The 2018 primaries kicked off in earnest tonight. Voters in West Virginia, in Indiana, Ohio and North Carolina went to the polls. Three of those states have key Senate races. And after tonight, the fields will be set, taking us one step closer to who will control Congress after November. We already have results in for two big primary contests. Those would be the governor's race in Ohio and a Senate seat in Indiana. The divisions within both parties are being highlighted with Republicans in red states trying to outdo each other on who is the most like President Trump and Democrats trying to prove who is the most progressive. Well, let's bring in NPR lead political editor Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hello there, Mary Louise.
KELLY: Hello there. So we got results. What do we know? What happened in Indiana?
MONTANARO: Well, so far, the first results and kind of a big result - Mike Braun, who is a - fashioned himself as an outsider businessman, won the Republican primary in Indiana. He's going to take on Democrat Joe Donnelly, who also won on his side. This is a top Republican target to try to take over in the fall. Now, a big reason this is important is because it's shaping up so far to not be a great night for congressmen - for Republican congressmen. You know, he defeated two congressmen who were both trying to out-Trump each other. And so far in other places, we're seeing Republican congressmen not doing so great. We'll get to that in a minute.
KELLY: All right. And before we move on, that governor's race in Ohio - what's the headline from there?
MONTANARO: Yeah. Richard Cordray, who is the former head of the of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that he was appointed to by President Obama, seemed to easily defeat former congressman Dennis Kucinich. So he's going to take on Mike DeWine, the Republican in that race, the attorney general in the state.
KELLY: OK, now, the marquee race - if I can call it that - that we've been watching all day today is West Virginia. This is where former coal exec Don Blankenship is running. He served a year in prison after he was convicted of conspiring to undermine safety regulations in mines, but he appeared to be running strong in polls right up to election day. What's going on in West Virginia?
MONTANARO: Well, right now it looks like Blankenship is not going to win this race. You know, anything can still happen here, but he's in third place, falling off from where the polls had him. And that comes a couple days after President Trump had tweeted to not vote for Blankenship. He's run a pretty controversial campaign, running against Washington, the establishment and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. Here's a little bit of one ad that he had run in this campaign.
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DON BLANKENSHIP: Politicians are running a lot of crazy ads. They blew up the coal mine and then put me in prison. Now they're running ads that say the coal mine blew up and I went to prison. One of my goals as U.S. senator will be to ditch cocaine Mitch. When you vote for me, you're voting for the sake of the kids.
KELLY: That reference there by Don Blankenship to cocaine Mitch, a reference to Mitch McConnell...
MONTANARO: Yeah, and there's nothing to suggest that Mitch McConnell had anything to do with cocaine except for saying his name and cocaine in the same sentence. You know, his father-in-law owns a shipping company. And at one point in time, cocaine was found on one of those ships. But no one alleges that the shipping company itself was smuggling these drugs or that McConnell had anything to do with it.
But this was indicative of the kind of campaign that Blankenship ran - everyone against me, playing the victim card and completely trying to sort of, you know, appeal to West Virginians to say that McConnell and the players in Washington are playing everybody like marionettes. Republicans were really - in Washington, were really, really nervous that Blankenship could pull this primary off and...
KELLY: Right, so are they breathing easier if he appears to be running toward the back of the pack?
MONTANARO: They are certainly tonight. Right now it looks like Patrick Morrisey, who's the attorney general in the state, is doing better. And they're hoping that Morrisey will give them a better chance or even Evan Jenkins, if he were to win the Republican congressman, against Democrat Joe Manchin this fall.
KELLY: OK. Any big surprises tonight as you survey the landscape?
MONTANARO: Well, there's one big upset in the making potentially tonight. North Carolina Republican Congressman Robert Pittenger in the 9th Congressional District is facing a very strong primary challenge which was unexpected. It was against a candidate, Mark Harris, who he only defeated by a couple points last time in 2016. If Pittenger were to go down, Democrats could have a real shot at flipping this seat, which is key when Democrats are looking around to try to find where they can make up those 24 net seats - again, not a good night for congressional Republicans across the board.
KELLY: And real quick, Domenico, what are you watching for beyond tonight? I mean, what are we learning from these admittedly early results but that might indicate anything of where things are headed for November?
MONTANARO: Well, so far we haven't seen really many headwinds for Democrats. You know, we've seen Republicans primary each other, but we haven't really seen Democrats face that. And over the next month, that's going to get tested. We'll look at California, and there are some 130 congressional races that are going to be set in motion over the next month.
KELLY: NPR's Domenico Montanaro, thanks so much.
MONTANARO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.