Vulnerable Democrats aren’t pulling any punches criticizing President Trump’s first months in office. Instead of veering to the right—as many red-state Democrats have tried with little success in recent years—2018’s most endangered senators have repeatedly voted against Trump’s Cabinet nominees, helped filibuster his Supreme Court pick, and ratcheted up their rhetoric against policies they say hurt the middle class.
While these senators still need to win back plenty of Trump voters ahead of the midterms, strategists say the moves reflect a new reality for red-state Democrats. After three election cycles of dormancy, the Democratic base could suddenly play a significant role in their reelections, even in states Trump won handily.
Pointing to the House special election he’s working on in Georgia, Democratic pollster John Anzalone said Democrats are already taking note of an influx of voters who hadn’t participated in previous midterms—a trend that could dramatically alter the political landscape in red territory in two years.
“If that holds into 2018, we’re going to see a voter universe that’s different from anything we’ve seen in God-knows how many midterms,” Anzalone said in an interview last week. “That’s what we should be focusing on as Democrats.”
Among vulnerable senators, many of whom pledged to work with the new president after he was elected, few are shying away from attacking the president, even in places he just won.
Sen. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, long considered a quiet centrist, raised eyebrows earlier this spring when he took to Twitter criticizing the president and participated in a series of rambunctious town halls. Members of the Senate Finance Committee, which includes a handful of vulnerable Democrats, boycotted a hearing for Trump’s picks to lead the departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Treasury. And all but four Democrats joined with their leadership in a filibuster of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.
As lawmakers returned from their April recess last week, red-state Democrats wasted no time laying into shortcomings of Trump’s first months. In a press conference Tuesday, Sens. Casey, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin each laid into the president for a lack of action on outsourcing and trade. Asked whether any appetite remained to work with the White House, Stabenow said each of them had initially been “hopeful” about it in the beginning, but grown less optimistic throughout the course of the president’s first months.
That attitude has drawn praise from progressive groups, who say frustration with Trump is already driving up their activism in traditionally red territory.
“What we’ve seen in the first 100 days is that Democrats staying largely unified has largely resulted in Trump passing zero of his top legislative items,” said Progressive Change Campaign Committee cofounder Adam Green. “So all the incentives are for Democrats to resist strongly and make it clear to the public that they’re siding with regular American people.”
Republicans, for their part, say Democrats’ shift into resistance mode is quickly putting vulnerable incumbents out of step with their constituents. Press releases from the National Republican Senatorial Committee have gleefully tied lawmakers like Baldwin and Casey to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and blamed them for obstructing the agenda of a president still popular in their states.
“They’re letting their base drag them away from the spot they want to be in headed into reelection, and it’s going to come back to bite them,” said one GOP Senate operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “The only way that this makes sense is if they’re positive that Donald Trump is going to have 40 percent approval in places like Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio, and that’s just not what we’re seeing.”
But Democrats say that a year and a half out from Election Day, incumbents in those states are doing exactly what they need to be doing.
“We need to get out to vote people who vote in the presidential but who don’t normally vote in midterms, and the way to do that is to tap into their frustration about Trump,” said Anzalone. “We’ll still be in a position to persuade the small universe of persuadable voters … but right now that is our opportunity—beginning and end of story.”
And among party faithful, there’s little question as to how to keep those new participants engaged.
“P.T. Barnum said if you want to attract a crowd, pick a fight,” said Green. “Pick more fights.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly said every Democrat voted to filibuster Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Four Democrats—Michael Bennet, Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and Joe Manchin—voted to invoke cloture on Gorsuch.