By Jim Ellis
March 2, 2017 — There already has been a great deal of talk about the difficult campaign road ahead that Democrats face in 2018. With having to defend 25 of 34 states in next year’s election, the minority party finds itself being forced to play defense in what should be a very offensive election cycle for them.
Republicans, theoretically, have a chance to gain seats in the midterms because they have offensive opportunities, similar to what the Democrats enjoyed in 2016. In that cycle, Republicans were forced to defend 24 of 34 in-cycle states, but were able to sustain their majority status, nonetheless.
The Trump 10 refers to the number of in-cycle Senate states that President Trump carried, where Democrats must defend. The following is a list of the 10 incumbents seeking re-election who should be in politically precarious positions. The group is listed in order of vulnerability, based upon the Democratic performance in the presidential race, the strength of the incumbent, and presumed challenger capability.
1) Indiana – Sen. Joe Donnelly – President Trump and the Republicans, ostensibly led by Vice President Mike Pence, the former Indiana governor, racked up large percentages in the Hoosier State. The trend, and the quality of potential Republican challengers such as representatives Luke Messer (R-Greensburg/Muncie) and Todd Rokita (R-Brownsburg/Lafayette), arguably makes Sen. Donnelly the most vulnerable of Democrats seeking re-election.
2) Florida – Sen. Bill Nelson – Always a tough, 50/50 state for either party’s candidates, the Sunshine State Senate race will again be hard fought. Gov. Rick Scott (R) has been making noises that he will challenge Sen. Nelson, which should boost Republican chances. Though Gov. Scott has posted relatively poor approval ratings throughout his tenure as the state’s chief executive, he’s proven he can win tough campaigns and will have plenty of campaign cash. But, of course, so has and will Sen. Nelson.
3) Ohio – Sen. Sherrod Brown – For President Trump, the swing state of Ohio produced as strong a percentage as reliably Republican Texas. This alone should give the Democrats reason for pause. Sen. Brown is a strong campaigner but has a liberal voting record that far exceeds the average Ohioan’s ideology. In 2012, State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R) held Brown to a 51-45 percent re-election victory. Mandel returns in 2018, but may first have to deal with Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Galena/Dublin/ Columbus) in a Republican primary.
4) Missouri – Sen. Claire McCaskill – With the Missouri electorate moving further right, Sen. McCaskill should be highly vulnerable in 2018. Rep. Ann Wagner (R-Ballwin/St. Louis County) was thought to be the main challenger for Sen. McCaskill, but lately Wagner is acting less like a statewide candidate and may not run. Retired NASCAR race driver Carl Edwards, former Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, who fared poorly in his 2016 run for governor, and state House Speaker Todd Richardson also are potential contenders. The challenge situation here needs to better develop for the Republicans. If it does, this race could become the top GOP challenge race in the country.
5) North Dakota – Sen. Heidi Heitkamp – In the 2016 elections, the Republican percentages in the top four races (President, US Senate, Governor, US House) were: 63, 78, 76, and 69 percent. Considering Sen. Heitkamp was elected in 2012 with a scant 50-49 percent margin, she should be the most vulnerable Democrat seeking re-election. But the senator has protected her vote to the extent that President Trump interviewed her for his cabinet, and she has supported most of his cabinet nominees. At-large Rep. Kevin Cramer (R) is considering challenging her, and will decide whether to run in the next several weeks. Though the numbers suggest that a Republican challenger should win here, Sen. Heitkamp will prove a tough opponent.
6) Wisconsin – Sen. Tammy Baldwin – President Trump was a surprise winner here in November, and arguably Sen. Ron Johnson (R) winning re-election could be considered the biggest of the 2016 upset victories, at least according to year-long polling. Republicans were dealt a setback when Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wausau), who many considered to be the party’s top prospect to run, announced that he would not enter the statewide contest. Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke may become a candidate, but he is still a registered Democrat. Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch is considered a potential Senate candidate, as is state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald. Venture capitalist and 2012 candidate Eric Hovde is also preparing to run. Once Republicans can coalesce around one challenger, this race will become clearer.
7) Montana – Sen. Jon Tester – President Trump’s selection of Rep. Alan Zinke (R-Whitefish) as his Interior Secretary may have robbed Republicans of their best candidate to oppose two-term Sen. Tester. Three first-term statewide officials are being mentioned as potential candidates: Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Amtzen; but all were just elected to their respective positions in November. Like North Dakota’s Sen. Heitkamp, Tester has proven himself a tough campaigner, and will be difficult to dislodge despite the state’s solidly Republican voting patterns.
8) West Virginia – Sen. Joe Manchin – As President Trump’s second strongest state (69 percent), the West Virginia Senate race should be at the top of the Republican conversion list. But Sen. Manchin has been out front on the issues of greatest concern to his state, such as energy extraction, and will be tough to dislodge. Rep. Evan Jenkins (R-Huntington) is seriously considering running. It will be some time before we can determine if any Manchin challenger can build a solid political foundation.
9) Michigan – Sen. Debbie Stabenow – Of the 10 states featuring a Democratic senator seeking re-election in 2018, Michigan is the only one where the state’s other senator is also a Democrat. Sen. Stabenow will be seeking a fourth term, and the potential opponents have yet to come forward. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) would be a top-tier challenger, and while he has not closed the door upon running, it is unlikely that he will enter the race. Rock star Ted Nugent has said he may run, but the controversial singer and gun rights activist would certainly not be the Republicans’ first choice as a credible Stabenow opponent. Former state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville is also being mentioned as a possible candidate, but it is unclear if he can raise the necessary dollars for a major statewide campaign. Until the GOP situation clears, Sen. Stabenow must be rated as a discernible favorite for re-election.
10) Pennsylvania – Sen. Bob Casey Jr. – With President Trump being the first Republican to carry the Keystone State since 1988, and Sen. Pat Toomey (R) being re-elected to a second term, Pennsylvania Republicans had their best election in decades. But, that momentum has yet to translate into a significant opponent for two-term Sen. Casey. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Delaware County), who certainly has the ability to compete statewide from a campaign finance standpoint, already has said he won’t challenge Casey. State Rep. Rick Saccone is the lone Republican to come forward at this point in the cycle. Unless Republicans score a top tier recruit, Sen. Casey will be re-elected.