AGAINST THE GRAIN

Republicans Lower Their Senate Expectations

After hoping to expand their majority with a favorable map, they are now playing a lot more defense than expected.

Sen. Jeff Flake
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Sept. 5, 2017, 8 p.m.

Senate Republicans have begun downgrading their expectations for next year’s midterms, tempering hopes of significantly expanding their 52-seat majority to merely protecting their narrow margin and salvaging wounded senators damaged by intraparty scuffles.

President Trump, once seen as a central player in the quest to defeat red-state Democrats and invigorate GOP fortunes in Rust Belt battlegrounds, has now become a major liability by picking needless fights with the two most vulnerable Republican senators on the ballot next year. Party leaders charged with protecting their Senate majority have concluded that they are now largely on their own, not expecting close coordination or assistance from a disorganized and unpredictable White House.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. At the beginning of the year, Republicans identified as vulnerable 10 Democratic senators representing states that Trump carried. Now, the number of promising targets has been cut nearly in half, while Republicans are fretting that they’re in deep danger of losing seats in Arizona and Nevada, where Sens. Jeff Flake and Dean Heller are fighting two-front wars that will damage their reelection chances.

Republicans are now focused on three promising pickup opportunities in the heart of Trump country—in Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota—while hoping that three additional seats in West Virginia, Montana, and Florida come into play later in the cycle. In Missouri, they landed a top recruit, state Attorney General Josh Hawley, to run against Sen. Claire McCaskill, whose approval ratings are weak. They like their chances in Indiana, where low-key Sen. Joe Donnelly will be facing either Rep. Luke Messer or Rep. Todd Rokita in a general-election matchup. And they’re confident that the political environment in North Dakota, the second most Trump-friendly state in the country, will be sufficient to dislodge freshman Sen. Heidi Heitkamp.

They’re planning to aggressively challenge Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, but they acknowledge that his popularity back home runs deep. A statewide poll released last week found Manchin with an enviable 51 percent job-approval rating and leading his top two challengers (state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan Jenkins) by double-digits. And in Florida, party leaders are hoping Gov. Rick Scott runs against Sen. Bill Nelson, and uses his sizable personal fortune to overwhelm the Democrat, who has been the beneficiary of weak challengers over his career. In Montana, Sen. Jon Tester faces reelection in a solidly Republican state, but the top GOP recruit (Attorney General Tim Fox) passed on running.

The GOP still hopes to compete in Rust Belt states that Trump carried as well, but it is realistic in assessing that the president’s declining approval will be a drag on the party’s candidates. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are the most promising opportunities. In Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s liberal voting record could make her vulnerable in a Trump state, but the political winds have shifted since last November. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Lou Barletta, a favorite of the president, is preparing to run against Sen. Robert Casey, but he would be a clear underdog.

Democratic Senate strategists believe McCaskill’s campaign savvy will bolster her chances against a reluctant challenger—and she has already enjoyed contrasting her University of Missouri degrees with Hawley’s Ivy League credentials. They view Heitkamp’s likability as a major advantage in a sparsely populated state, where Republicans have struggled to rally behind a challenger. And they are encouraged by a heated GOP primary in Indiana, where private polling on both sides shows Donnelly with a semblance of bipartisan support.

The GOP’s Senate majority is still safe, thanks to a historically favorable map. It would take a surprise vacancy, retirement, or Texas miracle to alter the Democrats’ near-impossible math to win back a majority. But as this column noted last month, the difference between Republicans holding 50 and 54 Senate seats makes the difference between a long-term Mitch McConnell majority or one that could be easily upended in the next election.

Make no mistake: Trump is the primary culprit in the GOP’s depressed fortunes. With approval ratings in the mid-30s and with few legislative victories, he’s done little to draw Republicans to the polls in a midterm in which the opposition is energized. Trump’s relationship with McConnell is at a low point, jeopardizing opportunities for critical cooperation in pivotal Senate races. By picking a public fight against Flake—and offering support to a primary challenger who Republicans fear is unelectable—he needlessly crippled the political future of a necessary ally.

“The environment for Republicans is not good anywhere,” said one GOP strategist involved in key Senate races. “It’s so easy to lose sight of that when the only conversation we’re having is about Trump.”

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