CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Feeling no relief from anti-incumbent Republican primaries, Democratic senators in GOP-leaning states are working to convince voters they’re free of Washington’s stigma.
The Democrats seeking re-election this fall in states Republican Donald Trump carried — the battlefront in the fight for Senate control —are portraying themselves as independent actors and known entities in hopes of inoculating themselves against Republican accusations that they are lockstep obstructionists to Trump’s agenda.
Among them: West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who wasted no time after Tuesday’s GOP primary telling the many Republicans who have backed him over the decades he was no creature of Washington.
“If it makes sense for West Virginia, makes sense to me, I vote for it, doesn’t matter whether it’s Democrat or Republican,” the former governor told supporters as he faces the most difficult re-election campaign of his 30-year career.
Though an act of pure survival for senators in a pronounced anti-Washington environment, Manchin’s tack, like that of North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and others, shows the challenge Republicans face against incumbents with established brands.
“All of these Democrats have gotten elected in red states, which by definition means they have a brand at least somewhat independent of the national Democratic Party,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, who is advising a group that supports Republican Senate candidates. “We’ll see whether those brands can withstand an even more partisan time than when they were first elected.”
In West Virginia and Indiana, Republican primary voters turned down U.S. House members’ bids for the Senate, keeping the pressure on Manchin and Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, who might have been able to attack an incumbent congressman’s record during the campaign. Instead, they’re facing outsiders with no federal record at a time when national polls show 80 percent of the public disapproves of the job Congress is doing.
But Manchin, like others, has been preparing for such a scenario by portraying himself as loyal to his home state rather than party ideology.
At his primary-night rally in Charleston, for instance, 94-year-old Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams, a Trump supporter, introduced Manchin with a call-and-response: “Repeat after me. I know Joe. You know Joe. We all know Joe.”
Manchin goes so far as to say “Washington sucks” in a recent ad. “For me, it’s always about West Virginia,” Manchin says, wearing blue jeans and standing near the monument to a 1968 West Virginia coal mine disaster that killed 78 miners, including Manchin’s uncle.
Similarly, Donnelly has an ad with him driving a motorhome along a rural highway. “You’ve got to be willing to drive down the Hoosier common-sense middle,” he says.
In North Dakota, Heitkamp is reprising a jocular spot of her six siblings teasing her about laundry duty, aimed at casting the former state attorney general and petroleum lawyer as the amiable woman next door.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill’s first campaign ad for her 2018 re-election campaign features the Democrat’s work on behalf of a local veteran who had been denied government benefits after exposure to poisonous gas seven decades ago.
In Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin has recently aired a lighthearted ad about her work to protect the state’s prized cheese industry, complete with mooing cows.
“What we’re seeing in these early ads is an effort to localize and personalize these candidates — to put distance between them and Washington,” said Steven Law, who heads Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s super PAC Senate Leadership Fund. “In effect, they’re saying: ‘I’m like you. I’m not part of the D.C. mess.'”
Trump took on Donnelly during a campaign-style rally Thursday night in Elkhart, Indiana, calling him “Sleepin’ Joe” and a “swamp person.” He said Democrats like Donnelly will say one thing at home “and then they go to Washington and vote for the radical, liberal agenda. It never, ever fails. You know there’s about 12 of ’em. You think you have their vote. And they talk a good game. But they always raise their hand for the radical left of Nancy Pelosi. Always. “
Some of the incumbents find ways to align themselves with Trump or to cast themselves as being at odds with some of their Democratic colleagues.
Manchin said Wednesday he would vote for Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA, Gina Haspel, despite widespread opposition among Democrats. The day before, he said he backs Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement as long as the president pursues “a better deal.”
McCaskill isn’t so friendly with Trump. But she recently chided Hillary Clinton after the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee said she topped Trump in “the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.” Said McCaskill, “For those of us that are in states that Trump won, we would really appreciate if she would be more careful and show respect to every American voter and not just the ones who voted for her.”
Whether Republicans can expand their 51-49 Senate edge or Democrats can regain the majority begins with the fate of the 10 Democrats seeking re-election in states Trump carried, including Florida, Michigan, Montana, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Each of the 10 Democratic senators, along with the entire party caucus, voted against the GOP tax cut measure Trump signed in December, a point Republican groups are using to overpower the Democrats’ effort to appear above partisanship.
That’s exactly what powerful outside groups such as the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity have been doing for weeks already.
Such groups have already spent nearly $10 million on ads attacking Baldwin in Wisconsin, though she won’t have a general election opponent until after the August primary.
They’ve spent $5 million doing the same against Donnelly and more than that combined against Heitkamp, McCaskill, Manchin and Montana Sen. Jon Tester.
“You just tie them to their votes,” said Republican media consultant Will Ritter.
Though the Democratic incumbents are trying to explain their votes as fiscally responsible and necessary to protect Social Security and Medicare, a steady stream of messages pounding at the tax cut opposition and other party-line votes can chip away at a personal brand over time, strategists and pollsters in both parties said.
Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa. Peoples reported from New York.