Dems Flex Muscles in Red States

Senate Republicans have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to cement a long-term majority. But Trump’s baggage is weighing them down.

Sen. Claire McCaskill
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
April 4, 2017, 8 p.m.

Something sur­pris­ing happened on the way to the midterms: Red-state Demo­crats are act­ing a lot more con­fid­ently than any­one ex­pec­ted. All 10 Sen­ate Demo­crats up for reelec­tion in states won by Don­ald Trump voted against the Re­pub­lic­an health care over­haul, pre­vent­ing the White House from get­ting even a small de­gree of bi­par­tis­an buy-in. None of them sup­por­ted the con­firm­a­tion of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Tom Price and Edu­ca­tion Sec­ret­ary Betsy De­Vos—and only Sen. Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia backed At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Jeff Ses­sions. Sev­en of the 10 are fili­bus­ter­ing Su­preme Court nom­in­ee Neil Gor­such, even though his fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings are sky-high after his strong con­firm­a­tion hear­ing.

This wasn’t sup­posed to hap­pen. Five of the red-state Demo­crats rep­res­ent states that Trump car­ried by double di­gits. Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill of Mis­souri, one of the most en­dangered sen­at­ors on next year’s bal­lot, is vot­ing and talk­ing like a down-the-line lib­er­al, rarely break­ing with her party. She rep­res­ents a state that Trump car­ried by 19 points. Sen. Jon Test­er of Montana, up for reelec­tion in a state Trump car­ried by 20 points, joined Mc­Caskill in sup­port­ing the Gor­such fili­buster. Even Manchin, rep­res­ent­ing the most pro-Trump state in the coun­try, has felt em­boldened to break with the ad­min­is­tra­tion when he feels that its po­s­i­tions are more closely aligned with Wall Street than Main Street.

In a more con­ven­tion­al polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment, tak­ing par­tis­an votes against the will of con­stitu­ents would be quite risky. But as Trump con­tin­ues to struggle, these sen­at­ors be­lieve that Trump’s elect­or­al per­form­ance in their home states was more a re­jec­tion of Clin­to­nian elit­ism than an em­brace of his polit­ic­al agenda. Many don’t ex­pect re­tri­bu­tion for de­fy­ing the pres­id­ent on his core ini­ti­at­ives—wheth­er it’s his Su­preme Court pick, his im­mig­ra­tion ban, or his plan to re­peal Obama­care. In fact, they’re tak­ing a page out of the House Free­dom Caucus play­book, cast­ing Trump as a cap­tive of the Wall Street swamp that he cam­paigned against.

To be sure, most of these Demo­crats don’t have a lot of reas­on to be run­ning scared, re­gard­less of Trump. Three of them are up in the tra­di­tion­ally blue Rust Belt states that Trump flipped; none of them has yet drawn a ser­i­ous chal­lenger. Two top GOP pro­spects—Reps. Pat Mee­han of Pennsylvania and Sean Duffy of Wis­con­sin—de­cided early on not to run. In Montana, Re­pub­lic­ans have a sur­pris­ingly thin bench of can­did­ates to take on Test­er, one reas­on why he’s ag­gress­ively chal­lenged the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials privately ac­know­ledge that Manchin and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who boast sol­id per­son­al brands, will be dif­fi­cult to beat. “I see states out­side the top five [Trump states] that will prob­ably be bet­ter op­por­tun­it­ies than West Vir­gin­ia and North Dakota,” said one GOP op­er­at­ive.

At this early stage, the most prom­ising pickup op­por­tun­ity for Re­pub­lic­ans is in Mis­souri, where Mc­Caskill’s sur­rog­acy for Hil­lary Clin­ton in last year’s cam­paign makes her uniquely vul­ner­able. Weigh­ing a chal­lenge is one of the GOP’s strongest po­ten­tial re­cruits, Rep. Ann Wag­n­er. Sen. Joe Don­nelly of In­di­ana is also draw­ing cred­ible early op­pos­i­tion after de­feat­ing a weak Re­pub­lic­an in his first Sen­ate race. But out­side of Mis­souri and In­di­ana, the GOP is hav­ing a tough time en­list­ing vi­able can­did­ates.

So far, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Chuck Schu­mer has ac­cur­ately pin­pointed the one ar­gu­ment uni­fy­ing his ideo­lo­gic­ally di­verse caucus: fight­ing for work­ing-class in­terests. Sev­er­al of the en­dangered red-state Demo­crats have built pop­u­list brands that will al­low them to com­pete for Trump voters. They’ve had no prob­lem op­pos­ing GOP policies that cater to more-af­flu­ent voters, not­ably the health care over­haul, school choice, and cor­por­ate tax re­form. Even the battle over the Su­preme Court isn’t likely to be a ma­jor factor in next year’s midterms. Gor­such is a broadly pop­u­lar nom­in­ee, but will voters care about a Demo­crat­ic fili­buster 18 months from now?

It’s easy to ima­gine a dif­fer­ent scen­ario if Trump had trans­lated mo­mentum from his elec­tion in­to policies de­signed to di­vide the Demo­crats. By fo­cus­ing first on in­fra­struc­ture, for ex­ample, he would have picked an is­sue with strong ap­peal to the blue-col­lar voters who swung his way in the elec­tion. That, in turn, would have put pres­sure on red-state Demo­crats to split with their lead­ers on hot-but­ton is­sues. In­stead, Re­pub­lic­ans seem hope­lessly di­vided while the most vul­ner­able Demo­crats are act­ing bul­let­proof.

The good news for Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans is that they’re all but guar­an­teed to main­tain their ma­jor­ity, even in a worst-case scen­ario. The map is simply that fa­vor­able: Only nine GOP sen­at­ors are up for reelec­tion, sev­en in deeply con­ser­vat­ive states, while 25 Demo­crat­ic seats are in play. But if the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment con­tin­ues to be rough for Re­pub­lic­ans, they could struggle to pick up seats. And if Demo­crats are able to win in Re­pub­lic­an states in 2018, the math turns sharply in their fa­vor in 2020.

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