Red-State Dems May Reach Across Aisle Ahead of 2018

Red-State Dems May Reach Across Aisle Ahead of 2018
Kelly Wilkinson/The Indianapolis Star via AP
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For a handful of Senate Democrats facing tough races in 2018, conservative pressures from voters back home could encourage more centrist stances ahead of next year’s midterm elections.

Aggressive bipartisanship, in other words, may be the best hope for red-state Sens. Claire McCaskill, Joe Donnelly, and Heidi Heitkamp to woo on-the-fence voters in their respective states of Missouri, Indiana, and North Dakota.

The problem, explains former Harry Reid spokesman Jim Manley, is the relative lack of deals to be cut this year.

“The Republican Party is so extreme that there is very little, if anything, they can work on together that’s going to be acceptable to the Democratic Party.”

While there is some validity to that point, said former NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh, the Democratic desire to “deny President Trump any victories” is also a factor.

All three of the Democratic lawmakers scored  in the top third of the Lugar Center - McCourt School Bipartisan Index of the 114th Congress, a quantitative ranking of how frequently a member voted across party lines.  Donnelly finished at No. 2. The bipartisan bills the three have sponsored have pertained mainly to veterans and the VA, health care, and state-based economic development, specifically in promoting agriculture and job creation.

More notably, however, are their respective reactions to recent hot-button issues, including the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Judge Neil Gorsuch's confirmation the Supreme Court, and the American Health Care Act. 

While McCaskill has not yet responded to Trump's sudden move on Comey, both Donnelly (pictured) and Heitkamp immediately issued press releases calling for the appointment of a special prosecutor to carry out the Russia probe the FBI has been conducting.

"The American people deserve answers regarding Russia’s interference in our election," Donnelly wrote, reflecting the sentiment of many Democrats concerned about the objectivity of the investigation.

In April, when the confirmation threshold for Gorsuch was lowered to 51 votes from 60, the nominee passed by a largely party-line vote of 54-45.  The only three Democrats to defect and vote for Trump’s nominee were Heitkamp, Donnelly, and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who is also up for re-election in 2018.

McCaskill, who at a Missouri fundraiser in March described the choice as being “really hard,” voted “no” despite calling Gorsuch “one of the better ones” on Trump’s list of potential Supreme Court picks.

The AHCA, which passed the House Thursday by a razor-thin margin of 217-213, is expected to receive similar opposition if and when it comes to a Senate vote, likely in the months ahead. As Sen. Chris Murphy said earlier this month: “I don’t think there’s an appetite in the Senate for the kind of draconian measures in this bill. Republican senators have pretty consistently rejected the catastrophic Medicaid cuts that are in the House bill.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen took the sentiment a step further in late March, drafting a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan that reiterated Senate Democrats’ opposition to any effort to “further erode the health care system and strip our constituents of coverage.” Forty-three of the upper chamber’s 48 Democrats signed the letter and the ones who didn’t -- Heitkamp, Donnelly, McCaskill, Manchin, and Jon Tester – all face tough re-election campaigns next year.

“Democrats have to be very, very careful that they’re not primaried by their own people over [health care],” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “After that, anything that comes up -- if anything does come up -- is going to be specifically endemic to their state.”

Heitkamp, Donnelly, and McCaskill represent areas that favored Trump by firm double-digit margins in 2016, and are in “toss-ups” races, as declared by both Larry Sabato and Nathan Gonzales. These three, according to USA Today, raised a combined $5.7 million in the first three months of 2017.

All have good reason to be cautious in their re-election bids. In 2012, Donnelly faced stiff competition in six-term incumbent Richard Lugar until Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock defeated Lugar in their primary; thanks in part to a highly publicized Mourdock comment about rape, pregnancy and “God’s will,” Donnelly won easily. “He won because Republicans had a terrible candidate,” said Walsh, who argued that Donnelly “would not be a senator today” if a more polished opponent had run against him.

Heitkamp slipped by Republican Rick Berg by a mere 0.92 percent of the vote, and McCaskill, who was neck-and-neck with Republican Todd Akin for several weeks, only pulled away when his infamous “legitimate rape” comment came to light.

“You should have seen the polling we had in 2012,” Walsh said of the Missouri contest. “Literally anyone could have beaten her except Todd Akin. It was really frustrating.”

Opinions differ on the GOP’s ability to bring the sort of legitimate contenders Walsh is referencing to each of these three races. While some express doubts, others point to sitting House members who could easily make future moves for higher office.

In addition, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence could have significant impact on otherwise state-based elections. Pence, for example, could be helpful in his home state of Indiana, aiding Republicans in defeating Donnelly.

“The key in Indiana, which I would be very, very concerned about if I’m the Democrats, is the fact that Mike Pence might be able to wield some significant influence in trying to take back that seat,” O’Connell said.

“These are all going to be national races,” said former Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Matt Canter.

Both O’Connell and Walsh, however, disagreed, arguing that there will be “too many balls in play” in 2018 to provide each race with equal attention and resources. The tremendous support Democrat Jon Ossoff has seen in his bid for Georgia’s 6th District House seat in next month’s special election, they say, cannot be replicated 33 times next year.

“One of the challenges Democrats are going to have, because they’re on defense in so many states, is their ability to expand the map,” Walsh said. “It’s going to restrict their ability to go on offense in other states.”

Next year Democrats will defend 23 seats to the Republicans’ eight (two others are held by independents). And they need a net gain of three to retake control of the chamber. GOP seats they’re looking at include ones in Nevada and Texas.

Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, for example, strikes many as the least secure GOP senator in 2018, largely because of former Sen. Harry Reid’s influence in the state – the same influence, O’Connell said, that helped Clinton squeak by Trump there in 2016.

In Texas, Rep. Beto O’Rourke is challenging incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, but he’s one Democratic recruit who could suffer from a lack of available national money should the party need to heavily defend its own.

The 2018 map features three other closely watched races. Sens. Manchin, Tester and Bill Nelson of Florida all represent states that went red in 2016 and all could face the same conservative pressure from home.

Manchin, who briefly tossed his hat in the ring for a Cabinet post, in March described his rapport with Trump as far superior to his rapport with President Obama. Having saved Democrats from a near-certain seat flip by opting not to run for governor in 2016, Manchin will could face either GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins or coal miner Bo Copley, whose impassioned discussion with Clinton marked a crucial moment in the presidential race.

Perhaps the best reason for Democratic hope in an otherwise gloomy forecast, though, is the fact that midterm elections have proven challenging historically for the parties of sitting presidents. As pointed out by PolitiFact, in midterms since 1862, the president's party has averaged losses of about 32 seats in the House and more than two seats in the Senate.

“We’re in somewhat unchartered territory,” said Walsh. “While midterms have historically favored Republicans, there is no question that Democratic anger toward Donald Trump could motivate more of their voters to get out in the midterms than in the past.”

Manley, sharing the general sentiment of Walsh’s comment, said, “I’m not ruling anything out. Clearly the math is against [Democrats], there’s no denying that, but I’m not ruling … out” a red state flipping to blue.

Ford Carson is an editorial intern for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at

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