How to save red-state Democrats
The time for compromise, civility, and moderation is over. This is political war.
Earlier this week, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) made the simple and seemingly non-controversial statement that she supports hearings for President Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. "We should have a full confirmation hearing process and a vote on ANY nominee for the Supreme Court," she tweeted just hours before the nomination was announced.
Liberals across America subsequently exploded with rage.
In simpler times (before Republicans cynically iced the Merrick Garland nomination), McCaskill's would have been an uncontroversial stance. Until recently, this was precisely how the Senate worked. But the Democratic base, righteously infuriated that the GOP's six-year ransacking of D.C. resulted in a total takeover of American government, is in no mood for compromise. In response to outrage from the freshly mobilized left, McCaskill backpedaled, reiterating her support for the filibuster and stating that Gorsuch will need 60 votes to clear the Senate.
McCaskill's wavering is symbolic of a larger problem: The 2018 Senate map is abysmal for Democrats, who will be defending far more seats than the GOP, mostly in hostile territory like Missouri and North Dakota. But any attempt to save these endangered Democrats by currying favor with Trump and his voters can only end one way: in estrangement from the Democratic base, humiliation by Trump, and then defeat in 2018.
Instead, McCaskill and Co. need to Google Map their spines, dig in, and fight like hell.
You can sympathize with their basic dilemma. Democratic senators like McCaskill, North Dakota's Heidi Heitkamp, and Montana's Jon Tester represent states that are far more conservative than the average elected Democrat. A strategy of positioning themselves to the right of the Democratic caucus makes some intrinsic sense. Conservative voters inclined to reject anyone with a (D) after their name might take a second look at someone who supports gun rights, for instance, or who capably represents the ideological preferences of their actual constituents. It's an age-old gambit in the Senate: Establish your maverick bona fides and glide to victory as a respected independent.
Unfortunately, there is zero evidence that this strategy actually works anymore. The instinct to pursue moderation and compromise with the Trump administration is deeply misguided. The only thing that can save McCaskill is a big, beautiful tsunami of Democratic votes in 2018.
Political memories in this country seem to be pretty short, but we've been here before, way back in the halcyon days of 2014. In that year's midterm massacre of Senate Democrats, those who lost their seats were almost exclusively Democrats representing red states, like Mark Begich of Alaska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas (the 2014 Mark Massacre also claimed Mark Udall of Colorado and spared only Virginia's Mark Warner).
Most of these senators had made concerted efforts to distance themselves from President Obama. Pryor voted against an expansion of background checks for firearms sales, vocally opposed same-sex marriage, and talked about Jesus in ways that would have made Jerry Falwell proud. He was still handed one of the most epic defeats ever suffered by a sitting senator, losing to Tom Cotton by 16 points. Louisiana's Mary Landrieu was one of the biggest thorns in the side of Democratic leadership during the debate over the Affordable Care Act, joining with Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to help spike the "public option," and spent her last days in office crusading pitifully for the Keystone pipeline. She still lost by 12 points.
There was really nothing that these doomed red-state Democrats could have done to avoid the partisan undertow of a Republican wave election. After all, the same dynamics have slowly eroded the number of Republicans representing blue states. In today's partisan environment, dressing yourself up as a moderate doesn't do much to save your skin. Just ask former Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk (R) or former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman (R) or former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R). Voters can see right through the ruse, and are starting to understand that senatorial maverick-y-ness is less important than whether or not your team controls the chamber and how popular the president is.
Wave elections, in fact, are how this new crop of endangered senators got or held their seats in the first place. Tester was lucky to run in the 2006 Democratic wave and then squeaked by with 48 percent of the vote on President Obama's coattails in 2012. Heitkamp also won a razor-thin race in 2012. Their presence in the caucus is valuable, of course, but Democrats need to be realistic about how it happened.
This isn't neuroscience. And the sooner the Democratic leadership processes and understands this basic reality, the better the chance that they will actually be able to hold some of these endangered seats in 2018. Instead of protecting the McCaskill wing of the party by looking the other way while they stab the base in the back, Chuck Schumer and his allies must do everything in their power to forge a unified front opposing everything — from executive orders to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Senators who wander off the reservation are going to be abandoned by the base or challenged in primaries.
Ruthless, unapologetic obstruction must then be coupled with a plan to nationalize the 2018 elections and to turn every single race in the country — from the bloodest red Congressional district in the Meth Belt all the way up to McCaskill's Senate seat — into a referendum on our odious president and the Vichy Republicans providing covering fire for him.
This should be easiest thing Democrats ever have to do.
The Trump administration has thus far been an appalling fiasco. While his abominable Muslim ban might split the country down the middle politically, the administration's plans on other fronts, like selling off national parks to oil speculators, are extremely unpopular and should benefit rural senators like Heitkamp and Tester. The scale of the inbound economic destruction — from throwing millions of people off their health insurance to the coming spike in consumer goods prices that will result from Trump's idiotic trade wars — should do all the work necessary to make the Republican Party radioactive. McCaskill's unpaid interns should be able to throw together a capable mashup of footage tying her opponent to the corrupt president and his cabal of white nationalists and granny-starvers.
Trump's approval ratings are already abysmal, rivaling the low points of George W. Bush's post-Iraq favorability. And this is the honeymoon period! McCaskill and the Democrats have only one choice: Band together, fight, and win — or at least go down with their dignity intact.