These Democrats will have a hard time keeping their seats in 2018

These Democrats will have a hard time keeping their seats in 2018
© Getty Images

Despite conventional wisdom that 2018 will be a winner for Democrats, Republicans hope to defeat a number of Senate incumbents. I recently wrote that Democrats shouldn’t feel too confident about their chances in two states, with Sens. Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party Senate approves funding bill, preventing partial government shutdown MORE (D-Ind.) and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Trump AG pick Barr grilled at hearing | Judge rules against census citizenship question | McConnell blocks second House bill to reopen government Ex-Sen. McCaskill joins NBC, MSNBC Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party MORE (D-Mo.) in trouble.

There are three more states where Republicans believe they can flip seats by beating incumbent Democrats. The most vulnerable of these is Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinBipartisan group of senators will urge Trump to reopen government for 3 weeks Leaders nix recess with no shutdown deal in sight EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (D-W.Va.).

Manchin is not safe, according to the GOP, because West Virginia has become overwhelmingly Republican in recent years. They point out that it was, in fact, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpVeterans groups demand end to shutdown: 'Get your act together' Brown launches tour in four early nominating states amid 2020 consideration Pence on border wall: Trump won't be ‘deterred’ by Dem ‘obstruction’ MORE’s very best state in the 2016 presidential election; he won by a stupendous 42 points and a whopping margin of 300,577 votes.

ADVERTISEMENT

In West Virginia, unlike some other states, Trump has not lost support and his approval rating remains high.

 

If you need another clear indicator of the depth of Democrats’ unpopularity, consider this: The present governor, Jim Justice, was elected as a Democrat but, soon after, decided the party’s label was too heavy to bear. So he switched and became a card-carrying Republican.

Even among loyal Democrats, there were obvious signs that all was not well years ago. In the 2012 Democratic primaries, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaIf Republicans rebuked Steve King, they must challenge Donald Trump ‘Family Guy’ says it will stop making jokes about gay people Selling policy to the cord-cutting generation MORE ran virtually unopposed — except, in West Virginia, where an individual named Keith Judd was on the Democratic primary ballot.

Judd, a complete unknown, got 41 percent against Obama, and carried 10 counties. 

Judd was not your usual candidate. He was serving time in prison. And the prison was not even in West Virginia; it was in Texarkana, Texas. 

But back to Joe Manchin: He is a familiar face and a known political commodity. He was elected to the West Virginia house and senate. He was elected statewide as Secretary of State and then twice as West Virginia’s governor. In 2010 he won a special election to fill Robert Byrd’s U.S. Senate seat.

Then, in 2012, when Obama lost the state by 24 points, Manchin won re-election by 27 points. 

Manchin has proven that he knows how to win. Just this week he proudly proclaimed himself on Joe Scarborough’s TV show to be “not a Washington Democrat” but a “West Virginia Democrat.” 

Obviously, he is intent on separating himself from the national party and doing everything in his power to promote his own brand.

Manchin, according to Democrats, will be aided by the “nasty” Republican primary between Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Rep. Evan JenkinsEvan Hollin JenkinsWest Virginia New Members 2019 Republican Carol Miller holds off Democrat in West Virginia House race Trump to fundraise for 3 Republicans running for open seats: report MORE (R-W.Va.). (Jenkins is another former Democrat who became a Republican.) Democrats hope this will divide the Republican Party and Manchin will overcome his Democratic Party label and, once again, come out on top.

In North Dakota, the Democratic incumbent is Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampEPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks 2020 Election: Democrats can’t afford to ignore their Israel problem Hirono will donate salary earned during government shutdown MORE. She has to contend with the Trump factor, too. In the 2016 presidential election, Trump won the state by a huge 35 points and a very robust 123,036-vote margin. 

Like Manchin in West Virginia, Heitkamp has enjoyed electoral success. Heitkamp was elected statewide as tax commissioner and twice as attorney general. But, in the 2012 Senate race against Republican Rick Berg, she barely won; her margin was less than 3,000 votes.

Heitkamp has gone out of her way to show her independence from national Democratic leaders. She voted against Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid knocks Ocasio-Cortez's tax proposal: Fast 'radical change' doesn't work Overnight Defense: Trump rejects Graham call to end shutdown | Coast Guard on track to miss Tuesday paychecks | Dems eye Trump, Russia probes | Trump talks with Erdogan after making threat to Turkey's economy Harry Reid on Iraq War vote: 'It tainted my heart' MORE for Senate majority leader in 2014. She supported the Keystone pipeline and is fiercely pro-gun rights. 

Republicans are in deep dismay that their best hope to pick up the seat — Kevin Kramer, North Dakota’s sole member of the U.S. House — decided not to run. Everyone agrees he would have been Heitkamp’s strongest challenger.  

Democrats like to point out that, in 2012, she ran 11 points ahead of Obama. They bank on her deep North Dakota roots and they think Republican Tom Campbell, a “wealthy farmer,” will not have what it takes to unseat the incumbent; plus, 6.5 percent of North Dakota’s population is Native American, and Heitkamp has courted this group assiduously.

Bob Salera, spokesman for the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, says “North Dakota is trending harder (to the GOP) in every election.” Best of all, he says, Heitkamp “hasn’t done enough to separate herself from Washington Democrats.” 

Finally, the “Big Sky State” — Montana. Trump won it by a big 20 points; the margin was 101,531 votes.  

The Democrat incumbent is Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSome Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party Three GOP Senate candidates, NRA may have illegally coordinated ads: report Immigration is pressure point for both sides in shutdown showdown MORE. He sure looks like he is from Montana. (I mean that as a compliment.) He’s got that unmistakable flat-top haircut and speaks with an authentic Western voice.

Tester, if he could make the election about his pleasing, aw-shucks personality, would do just fine. But here’s the hard, cold fact: He is going for his third term.  

The first time he ran in 2006, he won by a scant 3,562 votes. The second time he narrowly beat Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) by 18,000 votes. In both elections, he never got 50 percent of the vote. 

The Republican field is composed of State Auditor Matt Rosendale and former Judge Russ Sagg. Former congressman and present Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Major California utility PG&E filing for bankruptcy after wildfires | Zinke hired at investment firm | Barclays to avoid most Arctic drilling financing Zinke takes job at investment firm Trump taps Commerce watchdog to be new Interior inspector general MORE decided not to run for the U.S. Senate seat, as did Attorney General Tom Fox; Zinke’s decision, in particular, was a disappointment for Republicans. 

Montana has a pro-union sentiment, and Tester has a strong pro-gun reputation. He connects well with rural voters, and it should be mentioned that the governor, Steve Bullock, is a Democrat.

Democrats have shown they can do well in Montana, even in presidential elections. In 1992, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonDems should follow Bill Clinton's lead on minimum wage hike Feehery: Current shutdown impasse is a fight over peanuts Rosenstein, DOJ exploring ways to more easily spy on journalists MORE won the state; in 2008 Barack Obama lost it to John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump is right: Walls work on the southern border How news media omissions distort Russia probe narrative ... and shield Democrats Arizona city council halts work on mural honoring John McCain over ‘protocol’ concerns, neighbor complaints MORE by only 3 points. 

Yet, as in West Virginia and North Dakota, Montana is becoming unmistakably and reliably Republican. 

Manchin, Heitkamp and Tester are all going against the grain. But Democratic Senate Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein sees these three contests another way. 

“In each of these states, Republicans are suffering through brutal, expensive primaries or reeling from serious recruitment failures,” he says. “Senators Manchin, Heitkamp and Tester always put the interests of their constituents first, which is why, in these states, they’re backed by a strong coalition that includes voters of every political persuasion.”

Translation: The Republicans couldn’t get the right opponent, and the Democratic incumbents will run away from their party label.

Yet, most observers agree these three contests will be close, definitely single digits. 

Manchin, Heitkamp and Tester know they aren’t natural fits for their states. But each has been tested before and hopes the voters continue to view them as “one of their own,” not part of that “Washington crowd.”  

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.