Blue wave of 2018 stops in Indiana and Missouri

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As the New Year starts, the National Democratic Party feels highly optimistic. It is talking about a “blue wave” in 2018.

This blue wave, Democrats believe, will cause a political tsunami which will result in the Democratic Party retaking both chambers of Congress. They hope that they will capture the 24 seats needed in the House and, more important, net the two seats required in the Senate.

Control of the Senate is key. The Senate is the place where presidential appointments are confirmed or denied. If there is a future vacancy on the Supreme Court, the battle there will be of titanic importance. In addition, any coming cabinet departures will ignite a fierce contest in the upper body.

The Trump presidency can and would be profoundly altered by a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. This would occur even if the House remains Republican.

But not so fast for Democratic party euphoria.

{mosads}They are defending 26 incumbent seats. More troublesome is that 10 Democratic incumbents are up for re-election in 10 states where Donald Trump won. Some of these states Trump won by enormous margins; the victories were of landslide proportions.


Equally disturbing for Democrats is that these Democratic senators are in states which have become increasingly rock-ribbed Republican. Some political pros are convinced they are electoral aberrations and can’t understand how these Dems got elected there in the first place.

This column looks at the two most vulnerable Democratic incumbents and why they deserve that scary moniker.

Before I begin with the most vulnerable, let’s start the examination with the official party line. David Bergstein, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) spokesman, issued the following statement: “Obviously Senate Democrats face a very challenging map, but Republicans are facing expensive and divisive primaries and an electorate … We are running with strong incumbents … .”

Let’s begin with the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent. It would have to be Joe Donnelly of Indiana.

First, an observation about the Hoosier state which I can’t resist repeating: Hoosiers are “Texans with small hats.” In line with that description, Donald Trump won the state by 19 points. The margin was 524,160 votes.

Joe Donnelly, six years ago, was the luckiest man alive. He had the very good fortune to face a Republican opponent who defeated himself. His name was Richard Murdock, and this is what he said, “Life is that gift from God. And I think when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”

That comment immediately transformed Murdock’s campaign from victory to defeat. Donnelly won by 6 points.

Democrat Barack Obama won Indiana in 2008 by less than 1 percent. In 2012, Republican Mitt Romney won the state by 10 percent points.

In 2016, Democrat Evan Bayh, the very popular former governor and U.S. senator, went back to Indiana to regain his seat and got beaten by Republican Todd Young.

Donnelly has gone out of his way to be viewed as an independent by saying things like this: “I’m not going there as one party’s senator or the other party’s senator.” He is a blue-dog Democrat who is an opponent of abortion rights, and he refused to back Democrat Nancy Pelosi for majority leader when he served in the House.

But these stands might not save him in a state that is, by far, the most reliably Republican state in the rust-belt Midwest.

Of all the Democratic incumbents, Donnelly will be running scared. Very scared.

The second-most vulnerable Democrat? Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri.

Missouri used to be the ultimate bellwether state. In the 20th century it only voted once with the loser in the presidential election. That was in 1956, with Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Every other time its results predicted the winner.

In the 21st century things started to change. Republican George W. Bush won the state in 2000 and 2004, and Republican John McCain won it in 2008; Romney won it by a healthy 9 points in 2012.

But that was nothing compared to 2016: Trump won it by 18 points. The margin was 523,443 votes.

McCaskill is going for her third term in the Senate. She won her second term because she, too, was blessed with a Republican opponent who defended “legitimate rape.”

Todd Aiken, her Republican opponent, said the following during his campaign: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut it down.”

McCaskill won by 16 points. She and her family have deep Missouri electoral roots. She beat a Republican, Jim Talent, the first time she ran for the Senate. She was elected to the Missouri State House at age 29 and statewide in 1988 as state auditor.

Show-Me State residents have known this person for a long time. They have a history of voting for her.

But 2018 is not 2012.

She is better positioned than Donnelly of Indiana, but she should not feel secure.

Both Indiana and Missouri have Republican governors. In both, the state legislatures overwhelmingly are controlled by the GOP. There are only two Democratic House members in each state’s congressional delegations; three of those four are African-American.

The blue wave of 2018 will run smack into a red wall in Indiana and Missouri. It can be overcome, but it won’t be easy for these two Democratic incumbents.

In coming weeks, we’ll look at other Democratic Senate incumbents who are highly vulnerable in North Dakota, Montana, West Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.

There are GOP seats that could be flipped in 2018, too, most notably in Nevada and Arizona. And there could be a few sleepers in this category.

In politics, after all, the elements are constantly fluid, and no result is ever certain.

*This piece has been updated.

Mark Plotkin is a contributor to the BBC on American politics. He previously was the political analyst for WAMU-FM, Washington’s NPR affiliate, and for WTOP-FM, Washington’s all-news radio station. He is a winner of the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in writing.

Tags Barack Obama Claire McCaskill Donald Trump Joe Donnelly John McCain Mark Plotkin Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Todd Young

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