Political Connections

Trump-State Democrats’ Defiant Strategy

The “Trump 10” Democrats feel little pressure to work with the president, arguing that his agenda is wrong for their constituents.

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Claire McCaskill asks a question of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly during a hearing on June 6.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
July 5, 2017, 8 p.m.

Ap­par­ently, no one has in­formed Robert Ca­sey and Claire Mc­Caskill that they should be run­ning scared.

Ca­sey and Mc­Caskill are among the 10 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors fa­cing reelec­tion next year in states that Pres­id­ent Trump car­ried in 2016, of­ten by com­mand­ing mar­gins. After that per­form­ance, many in both parties as­sumed these would be the Sen­ate Demo­crats most vul­ner­able to White House pres­sure. Dur­ing the trans­ition, al­most all of the “Trump 10” de­clared their will­ing­ness to co­oper­ate with the new pres­id­ent. “There are prob­ably a num­ber of areas where we can work with him,” Ca­sey told MS­N­BC shortly after Trump nar­rowly car­ried his home state of Pennsylvania.

It is an un­der­state­ment to say the re­la­tion­ship between the pres­id­ent and the Trump 10 hasn’t worked out that way. In re­cent in­ter­views, both Mc­Caskill and Ca­sey made clear the White House has done al­most noth­ing to so­li­cit their in­put or en­list their sup­port. “I will be op­tim­ist­ic and hope that mo­ment comes, but not yet,” Mis­souri’s Mc­Caskill told me.

In­stead of be­ing tugged to­ward Trump, both Ca­sey and Mc­Caskill have been pro­pelled to­ward res­ol­ute res­ist­ance of his agenda. In that, they are the rule, not the ex­cep­tion, for the Trump 10. The group also in­cludes Ohio’s Sher­rod Brown, Flor­ida’s Bill Nel­son, Wis­con­sin’s Tammy Bald­win, and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow in swing states that tilted to­ward Trump; and Montana’s Jon Test­er, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, In­di­ana’s Joe Don­nelly, and West Vir­gin­ia’s Joe Manchin in more-con­ser­vat­ive states where the pres­id­ent romped.

Their op­pos­i­tion took root early in Trump’s ten­ure. None of the 10 backed con­firm­a­tion for Betsy De­Vos as Edu­ca­tion sec­ret­ary. Just Manchin, Heitkamp, and Don­nelly voted to con­firm Su­preme Court Justice Neil Gor­such. And, more re­cently, all 10 have signaled op­pos­i­tion to the evolving Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an le­gis­la­tion to re­peal the Af­ford­able Care Act.

This pat­tern of res­ist­ance has forced Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans to try to squeeze more of their agenda in­to the re­con­cili­ation pro­cess, which re­quires few­er votes to pass le­gis­la­tion. It’s also fram­ing what could be the pivotal ques­tion in next year’s Sen­ate midterm elec­tions: Will these Demo­crats pay a price for con­sist­ently op­pos­ing Trump in states that voted for him only last year?

“They had bet­ter hope the king is dead,” said Pennsylvania-based GOP con­sult­ant John Brabend­er, “and that a year from now Don­ald Trump isn’t be­ing seen, on the core is­sues he prom­ised to these [voters], that he has de­livered.”

So far, though, both Ca­sey and Mc­Caskill—along with their col­leagues—have been em­boldened to op­pose Trump pre­cisely be­cause they be­lieve his agenda hasn’t met those voters’ needs. Mc­Caskill said she “re­spects” Trump voters and their choice to “pull the pin on this gren­ade [to] see if we can up­set the status quo.” But she ar­gued that Trump’s agenda would de­liv­er “a gut punch to [the] rur­al Mis­souri” com­munit­ies where he ran best—thanks to a health care plan that would raise premi­ums for older and small-town con­sumers; pro­pos­als to shift fed­er­al fund­ing from pub­lic to private schools through vouch­ers; and an in­fra­struc­ture plan centered on pro­mot­ing private in­vest­ment and adding toll roads, both of which are more likely to be­ne­fit urb­an areas.

Ca­sey poin­ted to sim­il­ar risks in the con­gres­sion­al GOP pro­pos­als to severely cut Medi­caid, which he said could destabil­ize both the phys­ic­al and eco­nom­ic health of rur­al Pennsylvania. (In over half of Pennsylvania’s rur­al counties, he poin­tedly noted, the loc­al hos­pit­al is either the largest or second-largest em­ploy­er.) Add in the toll-fo­cused in­fra­struc­ture plan and pro­posed re­duc­tions in com­munity-de­vel­op­ment grants and home-heat­ing as­sist­ance for low-in­come seni­ors, Ca­sey said, and “I don’t think that’s what people in his base thought they were get­ting in their com­munit­ies.”

Just as strik­ing as the sub­stance of the Trump 10’s cri­ti­cism is its style.

No one has ever used the word “firebrand” to de­scribe Ca­sey, a soft-spoken former state aud­it­or with a cent­rist ped­i­gree. (He’s one of the last prom­in­ent Demo­crats to op­pose leg­al abor­tion.) Yet, since Trump’s vic­tory, Ca­sey’s de­fin­ing im­age came when he rushed, still in form­al white tie, from a Phil­adelphia Or­ches­tra ball to join an air­port protest against the pres­id­ent’s first travel ban in Janu­ary.

“It’s not just the policy agenda, which I think … caters to the Right,” Ca­sey told me. “It’s the whole ap­proach: the in­sults, the tweets, the di­vid­ing. … In most in­stances, pres­id­ents try to … be the adult in the room. [But] on many days … if there is not pois­on in the wa­ter, he tends to add the pois­on of di­vi­sion and dis­cord in­stead of try­ing to bring people to­geth­er.”

Mc­Caskill, who was also a state aud­it­or after work­ing for years as a pro­sec­utor, has al­ways had a more acerbic polit­ic­al style than Ca­sey, though her vot­ing re­cord is even more cent­rist. Her de­fin­ing Trump-era mo­ment came at a hear­ing in June when she poin­tedly chal­lenged Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee Chair­man Or­rin Hatch of Utah over the ab­sence of pub­lic de­bate be­fore the re­lease of the Sen­ate health care bill. “The ques­tion is,” she said of the smoth­er­ing secrecy, “is this go­ing to be a new nor­mal?”

The Trump 10’s de­fi­ant streak car­ries un­deni­able risks. Trump car­ried more than half of the vote in six of the 10 states and dom­in­ated with work­ing-class whites across them, exit polls found. Sev­er­al of the 10, par­tic­u­larly Mc­Caskill and Don­nelly, be­nefited from weak op­pon­ents last time. All could face tough re­cruits in 2018 (though Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Ann Wag­n­er, con­sidered Mc­Caskill’s most for­mid­able po­ten­tial chal­lenger, an­nounced Monday that she won’t run).

Yet all of these Demo­crats could be­ne­fit from grow­ing pub­lic doubts about Trump’s per­form­ance and tem­pera­ment. By stress­ing con­front­a­tion over ac­com­mod­a­tion, the Trump 10 are wager­ing that vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Geoff Gar­in is right when he pre­dicts that “even in places where Trump won … he will end up be­ing a big­ger prob­lem next year for the Re­pub­lic­an than the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates.

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