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Blankenship loses bitter Republican Senate fight in West Virginia

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey won the Republican U.S. Senate nomination in West Virginia on Tuesday, beating former coal executive Don Blankenship and calming the fears of party leaders who thought the brash ex-convict would spoil their chance to pick up a Senate seat.

Morrisey will now face endangered Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a prime target for Republicans, in one of the top Senate races of November's midterm elections.

Blankenship had panicked Republican leaders by showing signs of a late surge, but he faded to a third-place finish behind Morrisey and U.S. Representative Evan Jenkins after President Donald Trump intervened to urge voters to reject him.

The divisive Blankenship, who served a year in prison for safety violations in a 2010 disaster that killed 29 miners, ran a racially charged campaign that included attacks on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for creating jobs for "China people" and ads highlighting the Taiwanese heritage of McConnell's wife.

Blankenship told supporters in Charleston, West Virginia, that he had no regrets about his campaign and blamed the "establishment" for the loss.

"I think if there was any single factor ... it was President Trump's lack of endorsement," he said.

Trump, who won the state by more than 40 percentage points in 2016, had urged voters in a tweet on Monday to support either Jenkins or Morrisey.

The race was the highlight of primary contests in four states that showed how completely Trump has taken over the Republican Party, with candidates in all the major races competing to prove the depth of their allegiance to him.

Republicans also waged bitter Senate primary battles in Indiana and Ohio, two other states that Trump won in 2016 and where incumbent Democratic senators are up for re-election this year in key races in the battle for control of Congress.

Democrats need to pick up two Senate seats and 23 House of Representative seats in November to regain majorities in Congress and blunt Trump's agenda.

In Indiana, businessman Mike Braun defeated two members of Congress in a bitter race for the Republican Senate nomination and will face off against incumbent Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly in one of November's top races.

While U.S. Representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita hammered each other with personal attacks, Braun portrayed his rivals as indistinguishable products of Washington.

'MORE OUTSIDERS'

Braun's win displayed the continued political appeal of outsiders who run against the establishment and the Washington status quo, much as Trump did in sweeping to the White House in 2016.

"From the beginning our message has been pretty simple - we need more outsiders and less career politicians in Washington. More folks that have done something in the real world," Braun said in a statement after his victory.

Braun, a former state legislator, put more than $5 million of his own money in the race and will be expected to spend liberally again to challenge Donnelly in Indiana.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have already scheduled a campaign event in Indiana on Thursday, indicating the priority the White House is putting on the Indiana race - and their willingness to back whoever emerged from the primary.

In Ohio, where liberal Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown is another top Republican target, U.S. Representative Jim Renacci won the battle for the Republican Senate nomination over Cleveland-area investment banker Michael Gibbons.

Gibbons filed a defamation lawsuit against Renacci, who had won Trump's endorsement, alleging his campaign falsely claimed Gibbons was anti-Trump.

Ohio voters also went to the polls to choose candidates in the election to succeed Republican Governor John Kasich, who is prohibited from running again by term limits.

In November, Democrat Richard Cordray, the former head of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will face Republican state Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Cordray defeated Dennis Kucinich, the former Cleveland mayor, member of Congress and presidential candidate, in a battle of liberal favorites. On the Republican side, DeWine beat Lieutenant Governor Mary Taylor.

In North Carolina, Republican U.S. Representative Robert Pittenger lost renomination to pastor Mark Harris. He will face Democrat Dan McCready in November in a race that Democrats have targeted.

(Additional reporting by Valerie Volcovici in West Virginia; Editing by Leslie Adler and Darren Schuettler)