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

These Democrats will have a hard time keeping their seats in 2018
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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 DonnellyTrump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator Indiana New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck MORE (D-Ind.) and Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillJosh Hawley will defend the First Amendment and religious liberty Missouri New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck 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) ManchinSotomayor: Kavanaugh now part of the Supreme Court ‘family’ Trump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator Schumer reelected as Senate Democratic Leader 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 TrumpMichelle Obama says not always easy to live up to "we go high" Georgia certifies elections results in bitterly fought governor's race Trump defends border deployment amid fresh scrutiny 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.

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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 ObamaFDA tobacco crackdown draws fire from right As Democrats gear up to challenge Trump in 2020, the key political divide will be metropolitan versus rural Trump's take on midterms: ‘Epic' win in Senate, ‘better than other sitting Presidents’ in House 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 HeitkampTrump to nominate former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler as next EPA administrator North Dakota New Members 2019 2020 politics make an immigration deal unlikely in lame-duck 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 ReidDems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man Nevada New Members 2019 Meet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time 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) TesterCortez Masto poised to become DSCC chair Mellman: The triumph of partisanship VA under pressure to deliver Trump reforms 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 ZinkeLawmakers say California will eventually get emergency funding for fire relief Mulvaney positioning himself to be Commerce Secretary: report Overnight Energy: Trump to visit California wildfire victims | Head of Park Service climate program resigns | Dems rip Trump pick for energy panel 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 ClintonElection Countdown: Abrams ends fight in Georgia governor's race | Latest on Florida recount | Booker, Harris head to campaign in Mississippi Senate runoff | Why the tax law failed to save the GOP majority As Democrats gear up to challenge Trump in 2020, the key political divide will be metropolitan versus rural GOP chairman plans to subpoena Comey, Lynch to testify before next Congress MORE won the state; in 2008 Barack Obama lost it to John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump set to have close ally Graham in powerful chairmanship Cindy McCain takes aim at Trump: We need a strong leader, 'not a negative Nancy' McCain would have said ‘enough’ to acrimony in midterms, says Cindy McCain 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.