Does the NRSC Have the Right Message for 2018?

Stuart Rothenberg January 24, 2017 · 10:40 AM EST

The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s assault on Democratic senators up for re-election in 2018 has already begun.

That committee has sent out more than half a dozen press releases since the beginning of the year attacking Democratic senators facing re-election from states carried by Donald Trump in November or generally viewed as electorally competitive.

In each of the press releases attacking Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill, Montana Democrat Jon Tester, North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Indiana Democrat Joe Donnelly, the NRSC noted that Trump carried the state, implying that any of those senators who oppose the president’s agenda will pay the price in the midterm elections.

Another press release, “Schumer to Red State Dems: Enjoy Your Early Retirement,” dated January 12, refers to nine Democrats up in 2018 as coming from “red” states even though Sens. Debbie Stabenow (Michigan), Bob Casey (Pennsylvania), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Baldwin are not from “red states,” as the term is widely used.

Trump did carry all nine states, but a single election outcome does not change a state’s fundamental partisan bent. Indiana and North Carolina went for Barack Obama in 2008, but no serious observer started to classify them as “blue” states after that election. (Both states went for Trump in November.)

Interestingly, while the Republican presidential nominee carried the nine states mentioned in the release, the Democratic senators from those states are likely to be in better position for re-election in 2018 than they would have been if Hillary Clinton had won the White House.

Had Clinton been elected, the large 2018 Democratic Senate class would have been on the ballot during a third straight midterm election with a Democrat in the White House. That would have been a more dangerous position for Democrats.

Midterms usually bring voters to the polls who are angry, dissatisfied or disappointed – either in the direction of the country or with the president’s performance. With Clinton in the White House, that would have meant another potential GOP midterm landslide, producing huge Republican Senate gains given the 2018 map.

To be sure, that map is nearly perfect for the NRSC. With states like West Virginia, North Dakota, Montana and Indiana having contests, the cycle’s fundamentals certainly give Republicans an opportunity to make large gains.

But Republican control of the House, Senate and White House virtually guarantees that the midterms are likely to be about Trump and his performance, not Clinton or any other Democrat.

The state-by-state outlook for the midterm elections will depend on President Trump’s performance in office, not on how a state voted for president in 2016. Of course, Trump will try to blame Barack Obama, the Democratic Party and the national media for any problems during the next two years, but that strategy usually doesn’t work. 

The NRSC’s current message may well put pressure on Democrats from the most Republican states (e.g., Manchin) to vote for Trump Cabinet nominees, but it is likely to have little or no impact next year if the president’s standing is poor.

Some NRSC messaging does focus on Democratic liberalism and on the opposition’s efforts to create gridlock. Whatever one thinks of those messages (and the obvious hypocrisy of the gridlock argument), those would seem to be safer arguments for Senate Republican strategists to make some 21 months before the midterms.

For now, Republican Senate strategists should be able to benefit from Trump’s victory in fundraising and candidate recruitment. But that should not obscure the fact that Democratic incumbents like Baldwin, McCaskill, Tester, Donnelly and Brown should have an easier time running for re-election with Trump in the White House than they would have been with President Hillary Clinton sitting in the Oval office.