As Trump slips, the scale tips

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - PAUL KANE paul.kane@wash­post.com

In some red states, 2018 races are lean­ing blue. @PKCapi­tol,

Se­nate Repub­li­cans be­gan this year think­ing that they had lever­age over some Democrats, par­tic­u­larly the 10 up for re­elec­tion next year in states that Pres­i­dent Trump won in the fall.

Those Democrats, some GOP strate­gists be­lieved, would want to work with the pres­i­dent to ap­peal to enough Trump vot­ers to win their states in Novem­ber 2018.

That didn’t hap­pen. In­stead, Trump’s stand­ing has slipped in many of th­ese states. The pres­i­dent has faced leg­isla­tive grid­lock and a deep­en­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion of his cam­paign’s con­nec­tions to Rus­sia. His fo­cus, in pub­lic ap­pear­ances and on so­cial me­dia, has reg­u­larly drifted away from the pol­icy agenda on Capi­tol Hill.

That’s left Se­nate Democrats feel­ing stronger than they ex­pected to be eight months af­ter their highly dis­ap­point­ing show­ing in 2016, which left them in the mi­nor­ity and head­ing into 2018 de­fend­ing 25 seats com­pared with Repub­li­cans’ eight.

If Trump had spent his first six months in­creas­ing or even main­tain­ing his pop­u­lar­ity in th­ese states, he might have struck enough po­lit­i­cal fear in th­ese 2018 Democrats to com­pel them to sup­port some of his ini­tia­tives.

That’s look­ing more and more like the sort of ne­go­ti­a­tion that will hap­pen only if Democrats can com­mand a good deal in re­turn.

The dy­namic is sure to test Se­nate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch McCon­nell (R-Ky.) in the months ahead, par­tic­u­larly if Repub­li­cans fail to muster the votes solely from their side of the aisle to re­peal chunks of the Af­ford­able Care Act. McCon­nell has warned that such an out­come would force him to work with Democrats to shore up im­plod­ing in­surance mar­kets.

“No ac­tion is not an al­ter­na­tive,” McCon­nell said Thurs­day while in Ken­tucky.

Be­yond the health-care fight, McCon­nell has also made clear that there are many other agenda items that will re­quire the tra­di­tional 60-vote thresh­old to choke off fil­i­busters, mean­ing he needs at least eight Democrats to move leg­is­la­tion such as an­nual gov­ern­ment fund­ing bills and an in­crease in the gov­ern­ment’s bor­row­ing author­ity.

But the bar­gain­ing ta­ble is dif­fer­ent now.

Take Sen. Tammy Bald­win (DWis.), whose state de­liv­ered a crit­i­cal vic­tory for Trump, the first by a GOP pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee since 1984.

A staunch lib­eral, Bald­win be­gan the year ex­pect­ing her 2018 re­elec­tion bid to be a 50-50 prospect. Her state had voted Repub­li­can three straight times for gover­nor and in two of the past three Se­nate races.

Trump has used the pres­i­den­tial bully pul­pit to fo­cus on the Bad­ger State, mak­ing three trips there since Novem­ber. But his vis­its have done lit­tle to boost his stand­ing.

Just 41 per­cent of Wis­con­sin vot­ers ap­proved of Trump’s job per­for­mance in late June, while 51 per­cent dis­ap­proved, ac­cord­ing to a poll by Mar­quette Law School.

On ba­sic pop­u­lar­ity, Trump is eas­ily the most dis­liked politi­cian among Wis­con­sin vot­ers, with 54 per­cent hold­ing an un­fa­vor­able view of him and 40 per­cent a fa­vor­able one.

Bald­win’s im­age is not great, but it is far bet­ter in Wis­con­sin’s eyes than Trump: 38 per­cent have a fa­vor­able view and 38 per­cent un­fa­vor­able.

It’s the same in Michi­gan and Penn­syl­va­nia, both states Trump nar­rowly won. In Michi­gan, just 35 per­cent of vot­ers ap­proved of his job per­for­mance in a late May poll con­ducted by EPICMRA, with 61 per­cent dis­ap­prov­ing. In Penn­syl­va­nia, 37 per­cent sup­ported his job per­for­mance while 49 per­cent did not, ac­cord­ing to a May poll by Franklin & Mar­shall Univer­sity.

The good news for Trump is that his im­age in Penn­syl­va­nia im­proved a lit­tle from ear­lier in the year. The bad news is that his im­age in Michi­gan got a bit worse. The re­ally bad news is that Trump’s im­age is bat­tered enough that nei­ther Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) nor Deb­bie Stabenow (D-Mich.) are feel­ing much pres­sure to work with Trump in the run-up to their 2018 re­elec­tion bids, un­less it’s on their terms on a crit­i­cal is­sue for their state.

“For se­na­tors who hail from states where he is com­pletely un­der­wa­ter, there is no po­lit­i­cal rea­son to work with him un­less it’s on an is­sue where they have some­thing to gain,” said Matthew Miller, a for­mer aide to the Demo­cratic Sen­a­to­rial Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

It’s not just Trump who is un­pop­u­lar; so is his party’s health-care pro­posal.

Late last month, two lib­eral su­per PACs, Pri­or­i­ties USA Ac­tion and Se­nate Ma­jor­ity PAC, re­leased a poll of the 10 states Trump won where Democrats face re­elec­tion next year. It showed that 60 per­cent of vot­ers in those key bat­tle­grounds want the Se­nate to start over on a health-care plan, while only 25 per­cent sup­port its pas­sage.

The su­per PACs did not re­lease Trump-spe­cific data, but sev­eral sources fa­mil­iar with the poll said that the Demo­cratic groups also pri­vately tested the pres­i­dent’s stand­ing with vot­ers in those 10 states. Only in the most con­ser­va­tive of those states, such as West Vir­ginia and North Dakota, did Trump have a net pos­i­tive ap­proval rat­ing, but even there his ap­proval was only a hand­ful of points higher than his dis­ap­proval.

Trump won West Vir­ginia and North Dakota by 42 and 36 points, re­spec­tively. Un­der nor­mal po­lit­i­cal cir­cum­stances, Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) should be try­ing at ev­ery turn to work with Trump — much as South­ern Democrats sup­ported Ron­ald Rea­gan’s early agenda when the Repub­li­can icon swept that re­gion in 1980.

Af­ter ini­tial meet­ings with Trump dur­ing the tran­si­tion, dur­ing which their names were floated as po­ten­tial Cabi­net mem­bers, Manchin and Heitkamp have kept a re­spect­ful dis­tance from the pres­i­dent on most is­sues. Un­less Trump can re­gain his strong pop­u­lar­ity in th­ese con­ser­va­tive states, the two are un­likely to feel the pres­sure to sup­port the pres­i­dent, par­tic­u­larly when he’s push­ing very con­ser­va­tive agenda items.

“You have to demon­strate that you re­spect the of­fice and are will­ing to work with him, but hold firm to your prin­ci­ples on core is­sues,” Miller said, de­scrib­ing Manchin and Heitkamp’s ap­proach.

Dur­ing the spring ne­go­ti­a­tions over 2017 gov­ern­ment fund­ing, Democrats held firm against most of Trump’s pri­or­i­ties, in­clud­ing money for a Mex­i­can bor­der wall. Repub­li­cans got very few con­ser­va­tive wins.

If Trump isn’t care­ful, this dy­namic might start re­peat­ing it­self for the fore­see­able fu­ture.

JIM LO SCALZO/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Sen. Tammy Bald­win (D-Wis.) holds a photo of a con­stituent who she says would be ad­versely af­fected by the Repub­li­can health-care plan out­side the U.S. Capi­tol on June 27. Bald­win is one of 10 Se­nate Democrats up for re­elec­tion in 2018 in states Pres­i­dent Trump won.

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