Will the 'Trump 10' Pay a Price in 2018?

Ten Democratic senators from states Donald Trump carried are up for reelection next year—and they’re betting that resistance to the president’s agenda will win over voters.

Senator Claire McCaskill speaks to reporters following a town-hall meeting in Hillsboro, Missouri. (Jeff Roberson / AP)

Apparently, no one has informed Bob Casey and Claire McCaskill that they should be running scared.

Casey and McCaskill are among the 10 Democratic senators facing reelection next year in states that President Trump carried in 2016, often by commanding margins. After that performance, many in both parties assumed they would be the Senate Democrats most vulnerable to White House pressure. During the transition, almost all of the “Trump 10” declared their willingness to cooperate with the new president. “There are probably a number of areas where we can work with him,” Casey told MSNBC shortly after Trump narrowly carried his home state of Pennsylvania.

It is an understatement to say the relationship between the president and the Trump 10 hasn’t worked out that way. In recent interviews, both McCaskill and Casey made clear the White House has done almost nothing to solicit their input or enlist their support. “I will be optimistic and hope that moment comes, but not yet,” Missouri’s McCaskill told me.

Instead of being tugged toward Trump, both Casey and McCaskill have been propelled toward resolute resistance of his agenda. In that, they are the rule, not the exception, for the Trump 10. The group also includes Ohio’s Sherrod Brown, Florida’s Bill Nelson, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow in swing states that tilted toward Trump; and Montana’s Jon Tester, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly, and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin in more conservative states where the president romped.

Their opposition took root early in Trump’s tenure. None of the 10 backed confirmation for Betsy DeVos as education secretary. Just Manchin, Heitkamp, and Donnelly voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. And, more recently, all 10 have signaled opposition to the evolving Senate Republican legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

This pattern of resistance has forced Senate Republicans to try to squeeze more of their agenda into the reconciliation process, which requires fewer votes to pass legislation. It’s also framing what could be the pivotal question in next year’s Senate midterm elections: Will these Democrats pay a price for consistently opposing Trump in states that voted for him only last year?

“They had better hope the king is dead,” said Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant John Brabender, “and that a year from now Donald Trump isn’t being seen, on the core issues he promised to these [voters], that he has delivered.”

So far, though, both Casey and McCaskill—along with their colleagues—have been emboldened to oppose Trump precisely because they believe his agenda hasn’t met those voters’ needs. McCaskill said she “respects” Trump voters and their choice to “pull the pin on this grenade [to] see if we can upset the status quo.” But she argued that Trump’s agenda would deliver “a gut punch to [the] rural Missouri” communities where he ran best—thanks to a health-care plan that would raise premiums for older and small-town consumers; proposals to shift federal funding from public to private schools through vouchers; and an infrastructure plan centered on promoting private investment and adding toll roads, both of which are more likely to benefit urban areas.

Casey pointed to similar risks in the congressional GOP proposals to severely cut Medicaid, which he said could destabilize both the physical and economic health of rural Pennsylvania. (In over half of Pennsylvania’s rural counties, he pointedly noted, the local hospital is either the largest or second-largest employer.) Add in the toll-focused infrastructure plan and proposed reductions in community-development grants and home-heating assistance for low-income seniors, Casey said, and “I don’t think that’s what people in his base thought they were getting in their communities.”

Just as striking as the substance of the Trump 10’s criticism is its style. No one has ever used the word “firebrand” to describe Casey, a soft-spoken former state auditor with a centrist pedigree. (He’s one of the last prominent Democrats to oppose legal abortion.) Yet, since Trump’s victory, Casey’s defining image came when he rushed, still in formal white tie, from a Philadelphia Orchestra ball to join an airport protest against the president’s first travel ban in January.

“It’s not just the policy agenda, which I think … caters to the right,” Casey told me. “It’s the whole approach: the insults, the tweets, the dividing. … In most instances, presidents try to … be the adult in the room. [But] on many days … if there is not poison in the water, he tends to add the poison of division and discord instead of trying to bring people together.”

McCaskill, who was also a state auditor after working for years as a prosecutor, has always had a more acerbic political style than Casey, though her voting record is even more centrist. Her defining Trump-era moment came at a hearing in June when she pointedly challenged Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah over the absence of public debate before the release of the Senate health-care bill. “The question is,” she said of the smothering secrecy, “is this going to be a new normal?”

The Trump 10’s defiant streak carries undeniable risks. Trump carried more than half of the vote in six of the 10 states and dominated with working-class whites across them, exit polls found. Several of the 10, particularly McCaskill and Donnelly, benefited from weak opponents last time. All could face tough recruits in 2018 (though Republican Representative Ann Wagner, considered McCaskill’s most formidable potential challenger, announced Monday she won’t run).

Yet all of these Democrats could benefit from growing public doubts about Trump’s performance and temperament. By stressing confrontation over accommodation, the Trump 10 are wagering that veteran Democratic pollster Geoff Garin is right when he predicts that “even in places where Trump won … he will end up being a bigger problem next year for the Republican than the Democratic candidates.”