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.