Troubled Times for 10 Senate Democrats

They face re-election in states Trump won. Will they cozy up or join the ‘resistance’?

 
 

Heidi Heitkamp on Capitol Hill, July 11.
Heidi Heitkamp on Capitol Hill, July 11. PHOTO: REYNOLDS/EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The 25 Democratic senators who face re-election in 2018 are already gearing up for a fight. Their latest quarterly fundraising reports, released over the past two weeks, show impressive totals, ranging up to $3.1 million. But for the 10 Democrats from states carried by President Trump, a well-stuffed war chest may not be enough.

This is especially true for six senators in states where Mr. Trump’s victory last November was huge. He won Joe Manchin’s West Virginia by an astonishing 42 points; Heidi Heitkamp’s North Dakota by 36 points; Jon Tester’s Montana by 20; Joe Donnelly’s Indiana and Claire McCaskill’s Missouri by 19, and Sherrod Brown’s Ohio by 8.

Four other Democrats—Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin and Florida’s Bill Nelson —are in states where Mr. Trump’s margin of victory ranged from 0.2% to 1.2%. None of them can take re-election for granted. 

They must all keep an eye on the president’s favorability ratings. On Election Day, Mr. Trump was viewed favorably by 37.5% of voters and unfavorably by 58.5%, according to the RealClearPolitics average. As of this Wednesday, his ratings stood at 40.4% favorable and 53.6% unfavorable.

Mr. Trump is likely to be more popular in states he won than his national average: The larger his margin in those states last November, the better he stands now. If this trend holds through 2018, Democrats in states Mr. Trump won by double or nearly double digits could face stiff re-election contests.

Though many endangered Democrats are now making bipartisan or even pro-Trump noises, voters won’t forget these incumbents’ loyal support for President Obama’s agenda. They can try hiding from their voting records but can’t escape them.

Furthermore, these Democrats are highly partisan. For example, Mr. Tester once led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Ms. McCaskill can’t restrain herself from making needless partisan jabs. All eagerly campaigned for Hillary Clinton. Even Mr. Manchin personally pushed her last fall to make an appearance in West Virginia.

Cozying up now to Mr. Trump doesn’t square with the Democrats’ “resistance” agenda. For example, after hyping rumors that she might be named Mr. Trump’s agriculture secretary, Ms. Heitkamp voted to sustain an Obama administration regulation on methane emissions that North Dakota’s energy industry strongly opposed. She was trying to dampen opposition from the Democratic left, which was angry at her for playing footsie with the new president.

Consider also Indiana’s Mr. Donnelly. The Washington Examiner reports that he emphasized his strong support for ObamaCare in a fundraising email on June 21—the same day news broke that two of the four insurers remaining in Indiana’s health exchanges were pulling out. Another fundraising appeal a few days later claimed that Sen. Donnelly was “fighting back against Trump’s extreme agenda,” complicating his effort to look like a bipartisan moderate. Facing similar balancing acts, all these Democrats could easily fall off the beam.

Republicans do have their own 2018 challenges. Sen. Jeff Flake must play defense in Arizona (which Mr. Trump won by 3.5%) while Sen. Dean Heller is fighting an uphill battle in Nevada (which Mr. Trump lost by 2.4%). It doesn’t help that Mr. Heller has stumbled by threatening to scuttle his party’s plan to replace ObamaCare. Both seats are crucial to keeping the GOP’s Senate majority.

Since several of these Democrats are better-than-average campaigners, Republicans must also recruit strong challengers. The GOP can’t beat something without something better. Screaming “liberal, liberal, liberal” won’t work either. Republicans must show voters that these Democrats say one thing during elections and something else in between them.

The greater key to Republican success, however, is getting things done now in the halls of Congress. That’s why Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to keep the Senate working for two weeks in August rather than breaking for recess is so vital. If Republicans don’t repeal and replace ObamaCare and reform the tax code, the party’s grass roots will lose enthusiasm, donors will shut their pocketbooks, and Republicans will lose.

But if the GOP Congress can get things done, 2018’s unusual mix—25 Democrats up for re-election versus only nine Republicans—could make it one of the 20% of midterm elections in the past century in which the party holding the White House actually picks up seats.

Mr. Rove helped organize the political-action committee American Crossroads and is the author of “The Triumph of William McKinley ” (Simon & Schuster, 2015).

Appeared in the July 13, 2017, print edition.

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