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Mike Braun speaks during the Indiana Republican Senate Primary Debate in Indianapolis, on April 30, 2018.Darron Cummings/The Associated Press

Republican voters rejected ex-convict Don Blankenship Tuesday in a West Virginia Senate primary in which he sold himself as “Trumpier than Trump” but was vigorously opposed by the president. GOP voters in Indiana, meanwhile, chose wealthy businessman Mike Braun over two sitting congressmen to lead the party’s charge against a vulnerable Democratic senator in the fall.

In a possible sign of party unrest, Rep. Robert Pittenger lost the Republican primary for his seat in North Carolina to the Rev. Mark Harris, a Baptist pastor he narrowly beat two years ago. Both men campaigned as evangelical Christians who would outdo the other to support Donald Trump.

These were among a slate of elections, kicking off the primary season, that tested the limits of the anti-establishment fervour that has defined the Trump era.

Hopelessly behind in West Virginia, Blankenship conceded defeat in the state’s GOP Senate primary election. That was welcome news for Trump and his allies who had fought aggressively to undermine Blankenship, an ex-convict who they feared would have little chance of defeating Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin this fall.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the nomination, promoting his record of challenging policies of the administration of former President Barack Obama and deflecting criticism of his roots in New Jersey, where he lost a 2000 congressional race.

There was less drama in Indiana, where Republican voters nominated businessman Braun to take on Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly in November. Braun, a one-time critic of Trump, has more recently declared that the president should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

The West Virginia Republican Senate contest in particular headlined a slate of primary elections across four states on Tuesday that will help shape the political landscape in this fall’s midterm elections. Control of Congress is at stake in addition to state governments across the nation.

In most cases, the Republican candidates on the ballot Tuesday had competed to be seen as the most conservative, the most anti-Washington and the most loyal to the Republican president.

In Indiana, Democrat Donnelly will face off in November against Braun, a multi-millionaire owner of a national auto parts distribution business who was highly critical of Trump throughout the 2016 general election. He has since come around, voicing praise for the “Trump agenda” – if not always the president’s inflammatory rhetoric and tweets.

Another Indiana contest was less contentious: Greg Pence won the primary for the congressional seat his younger brother, Vice-President Mike Pence, once held. Greg Pence is a Marine veteran and owner of two antique malls who once ran the now-bankrupt chain of Tobacco Road convenience stores. He’ll be the favourite to win the seat in November.

In Ohio’s high-profile governor’s race, Democrats nominated Obama-era consumer watchdog Richard Cordray while Republicans selected state Attorney General Mike DeWine. Both parties were also deciding their nominees for an August special election to replace GOP Rep. Pat Tiberi, who resigned earlier in the year.

And on the local level, a woman who accused Trump of sexually harassing her more than a decade ago claimed the Democratic nomination in a race to represent an area southeast of Toledo in the state House of Representatives. Democrat Rachel Crooks, a 35-year-old university administrator, ran unopposed, but must next win a November general election to become the first Trump accuser to hold elected office.

A bright spot for Republicans in swing-state Ohio: GOP turnout was considerably stronger than Democratic voting in the open governor’s race. With nearly two-thirds of the vote counted, 567, 000 Republicans cast votes, to 412,000 Democrats.

U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, with Trump’s support, won the Republican primary to challenge Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in November.

Yet none of Tuesday’s other contests was expected to have more impact on the midterm landscape than West Virginia, where Blankenship embraced Trump’s tactics – casting himself as a victim of government persecution and seizing on xenophobia, if not racism – to stand out in a crowded Republican field that included Attorney General Morrisey and Congressman Evan Jenkins.

Before his loss was official, Blankenship promised to explore his options in the general election – including whether state election law might allow him to launch a third-party bid that could undermine Morrisey’s candidacy.

The stakes are high for a Republican Party bracing for major losses in this fall’s midterm elections.

West Virginia Republican Chairwoman Melody Potter downplayed concerns about Blankenship, pointing to another Republican outsider who ultimately proved the establishment wrong.

“You know, when Trump was running, some of those same people said that, too,” Potter said.

No matter Tuesday’s winner, Trump’s team was keeping pressure on Manchin. A pro-Trump political action committee America First was airing ads promoting Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee to be CIA director, and urging residents to call Manchin to support her confirmation.

Trump and his allies had invested significant resources in an effort to influence another high-profile Senate race recently as well.

Last year, Trump endorsed Republican Sen. Luther Strange for the Alabama seat vacated by Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions. Former state Supreme Court Judge Roy Moore won the GOP runoff and was defeated by Democrat Doug Jones after Moore was accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls decades earlier.

In that race, Trump ultimately endorsed Moore.

Trump and his party leaders have been more united against Blankenship in recent weeks. The head of the Senate Republican campaign arm has highlighted Blankenship’s criminal history. And a group allied with the national GOP, known as Mountain Families PAC, has spent more than $1.2-million in attack ads against Blankenship.

The retired businessman was released less than a year ago from a prison term for a 2010 mine explosion that left 29 men dead. Blankenship led the company that owned the mine and was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to break safety laws, a misdemeanour.

He has repeatedly blamed government regulators for the disaster, casting himself as the victim of an overzealous Obama-era Justice Department – an argument Trump regularly uses to dismiss federal agents investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia.

Even as Blankenship rebuffed Trump’s criticism this week, he described himself as “Trumpier than Trump” and played up his outsider credentials.

“West Virginia will send the swamp a message: No one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote,” Blankenship declared.

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