Things Are Looking Up for Democratic Senators in Trump Country

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Notwithstanding predictions of a Democratic Senate bloodbath in 2018, Heidi Heitkamp’s favorability rating in North Dakota is 60 percent, while Republican Jeff Flake’s popularity in Arizona is underwater. Photo: U.S. Senate

Perhaps as a tonic for the troops at a time when Senate Republicans are being engulfed by chaos of their own making, veteran spinner Karl Rove devoted a Wall Street Journal column to a baleful assessment of the reelection prospects of Senate Democrats running in states carried handily by Donald Trump last year.

There’s a certain dated quality to Rove’s analysis; he writes as though these senators are fresh from gazing in awe at Trump’s 2016 victory and are trying to decide whether to fight back or run for the hills. In reality, these pols have for the most part chosen to oppose every unpopular thing Trump and the congressional GOP have proposed this year, which fortunately for red-state Democrats is nearly their entire agenda. Still, the 2016 numbers are indeed daunting for some:

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.

Rove goes on to make a very dubious assertion that we are going to hear a lot from Republicans between now and November of 2018:

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.

This argument ignores the rather pertinent fact that Trump was running against a rival who was almost as unpopular as he was. In 2018, Republicans won’t have the luxury of running against Hillary Clinton. Instead, they will be up against well-known Senate incumbents with their own public profiles, and in a midterm environment where there is usually a wind blowing against the party controlling the White House.

So while we should indeed “keep and eye on the president’s favorability ratings,” those of the senators in question are even more relevant. As it happens Morning Consult just released an update of its home-state favorability assessments for all 100 U.S. senators, and the very Democrats Rove thinks are in inherently deep trouble are actually doing quite well. Joe Manchin’s ratio is 57/31; Heidi Heitkamp’s is an even more impressive 60/28. Jon Tester (50/39), Joe Donnelly (53/25), and Sherrod Brown (50/29) are at or above the magic 50-percent level that often connotes future victory, with limited “unfavorables,” and Claire McCaskill (46/38) isn’t exactly plumbing the depths of unpopularity, either.

In fact, the one senator up in 2018 whose favorability numbers are underwater is a Republican, Jeff Flake of Arizona (37/45).

Another problem for the GOP is that it is struggling to find credible challengers to theoretically vulnerable Democrats in some states (as in Missouri, where consensus GOP favorite Representative Ann Wagner decided not to take on McCaskill), and is facing potentially fractious Republican primaries (as in Indiana, where Representatives Luke Messer and Todd Rokita are already attacking each other) in others.

There is plenty of time for things to change in the months ahead, and nobody on the Democratic side has any reason to feel complacent about holding onto Senate seats in one of the more lopsided landscapes in living memory. But for now, a Democratic red-state bloodbath in 2018 looks unlikely. And if congressional Republicans continue to flail around in the clumsy pursuit of an unpopular agenda, the odds of survival for Democrats in Trump Country will only go up.

Things Looking Up for Democratic Senators in Trump Country