President Donald Trump had one of the worst weeks of his presidency, his poll numbers are in the tank, and Republicans are scurrying. Yet it’s the Democrats’ Senate prospects that are going south.
In the midst of the Trump turmoil, the well-respected Cook Political Report moved four Senate races toward the Republican column in its latest 2018 forecast.
Cook moved Indiana, Missouri, and West Virginia from “lean D” to toss-up, and it shifted North Dakota from “likely D” to “lean D.” It did move one race in the other direction, downgrading Nevada from “lean R”to “toss-up.”
“The GOP’s recruiting strong candidates at this point, and the Democrats are running in states that are hard for them,” said Jeremy Adler, a spokesman for the conservative super PAC America Rising Squared. “They’re not really in touch with the voters in their states.”
Sen Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) appears particularly vulnerable. America Rising Squared is launching a new group, Missouri Rising, to support whichever Republican candidate emerges as the nominee. Most experts expect that to be popular Attorney General Josh Hawley, if he decides to run. Adler noted that Hawley last year got more votes in Missouri than any other candidate on the ballot, including Trump.
Three forecasters have indicated this month that Hawley would perhaps be the strongest Republican challenger in the country. The National Journal wrote that Hawley would give Republicans “one of their strongest recruits in an increasingly conservative state where Trump remains popular.” Kyle Kondick wrote for the University of Virginia Center for Politics that McCaskill “probably is the most vulnerable Senate Democrat.”
And CNN’s Eric Bradner wrote that Missouri is “perhaps the GOP’s strongest pickup opportunity.”
McCaskill has twice won the Senate seat but is considered weaker than a typical two-term incumbent. She barely cleared 50 percent of the vote during her first win, in 2006. Six years later, she benefited by drawing a weak GOP opponent, Rep. Todd Akin, who imploded after insisting that victims of “legitimate rape” cannot become pregnant.
“She isn’t likely to have as easy a path to re-election this cycle,” Cook Political Report analyst Jennifer Duffy wrote. “It is not certain that Republicans can avoid a primary, but they aren’t likely to let McCaskill and Democrats dictate the terms.”
In addition, Duffy noted, Missouri has trended more Republican the past decade. Last year, Trump carried the state by 19 percentage points, while Republicans won every statewide office on the ballot.
Missouri is not the only place where Democrats will be playing defense. Nine other Democrats will face re-election in states that Trump won. Meanwhile, just one Republican is defending a seat that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won. Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Jon Tester in Montana, and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota all figure to have particularly difficult races, depending on whether Republicans nominate top-tier candidates.
This is one of the most important reasons why Democrats may find it hard to capitalize on Trump’s low approval ratings, said University of Dayton political science professor Christopher Devine. He said states where Trump’s unfavorables are very high — such as California and New York — will not have competitive Senate races. The president has not fallen as far in many states that will feature tightly contested races.
Republicans made major gains in both the House and Senate by nationalizing midterm elections during Barack Obama’s presidency. Devine said it is an open question how much success Democrats will have following the same strategy, given that the primary critique against Trump is based on personality rather than policy.
Devine said Republicans ran against Obama’s personality to some extent as well.
“But there was a lot of policy content in that, particularly on health care,” he said. “You would think issues would be more effective.”
Devine cautioned that predictions are hard to make at this stage. Outcomes will depend on the quality of the candidates and turnout, he said. Republicans benefited from a more motivated base than Democrats during the past two midterm elections. But Devine said it might be Democrats who are super-energized next year.
And Republicans are not without their weak spots, he said. He noted that Nevada’s Dean Heller and Arizona’s Jeff Flake both will face primary challenges. They could lose or limp into the general elections as weakened candidates. And if Republican Sen. Susan Collins decides to run for governor of Maine, that immediately would because a prime pickup opportunity in a Democratic-leaning state.
“There aren’t a lot of vulnerable Republicans, but the ones that are, are quite vulnerable,” Devine said.
What’s more, he added, Tester and McCaskill are savvy operators who have demonstrated an ability to win their Republican-leaning states.
“There’s a reason why Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester have won multiple elections,” Devine said.
Adler, of America Rising Squared, said his organization will hammer red-state Democrats with their own voting records. He noted that McCaskill opposed many of Trump’s Cabinet secretaries and votes with liberal Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren 87 percent of the time.
“But with incumbency also comes problems,” he said. “And problems come down to her voting record.”
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