In just the first days of his administration, President Donald Trump signed executive actions on issues pushed by some of the same Senate Democrats his party wants to defeat in 2018.
By withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which almost all Democrats now oppose, Trump on Monday put himself more in line with vulnerable red-state Democrats than some members of his own party.
With his actions Tuesday advancing the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipelines, he’s delivered on a priority for Democratic senators like Missouri’s Claire McCaskill, North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III — all of whom face competitive re-elections in states that Trump won.
But given how early it is in the cycle, Democratic strategists aren’t sure how Trump’s actions on these two issues — and how the actions put him in alliance with some Democratic senators — will impact 2018 races, many of which don’t yet have defined GOP challengers.
A little side-stepping
This much is for sure, though: The 10 Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won have a difficult dance to do. They need to keep their Democratic base happy, which means not cozying up to an unpopular GOP president. But they also need to be wary of alienating independent and GOP voters.
“To have any chance to win back the Senate, some of them need to get votes from people who voted for Donald Trump,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
For the vulnerable Democrats who support one or both of these actions, “it gives them an opportunity to join with Trump,” he said. And in that sense, he added, “it makes life easier.”
“The nice part about the way this starts out is that for the populist and progressive wing of the party, there’s the TPP executive action, and for the conservative wing, there’s Keystone. There’s something for everybody,” one Democratic consultant said.
Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin has been a top early target of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for her opposition to some of Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
But the statement she released about the executive action on TPP — she wouldn’t discuss it in the Senate subways Tuesday — was indicative of the way in which she may join forces with Trump on policy, but still maintain her distance from the president himself.
The bulk of the senator’s response was about how bad TPP is and her opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Only at the very end did she acknowledge the president, calling his actions, “good first steps.”
It wasn’t enthusiastic approbation, though. Baldwin added that if Trump is to “keep his word to Wisconsin workers,” he’ll have to do more. She followed up with a letter to the White House on Tuesday, emphasizing the need to create so-called Buy America rules and to name China a currency manipulator.
Baldwin doesn’t yet have a Republican foe, although Rep. Sean P. Duffy is considered a potential challenger. He voted to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the TPP, and if he decides to run for Senate and sticks with that position, trade could become an issue in that Senate race.
“Look, it’s going to be a real challenge for Republican candidates and for their biggest funders at the Chamber [of Commerce] to square their position on this issue going into the election,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson. “TPP electorally divided Democrats in 2016,” he said, but “it electorally divides Republicans in 2018.”
Piping in jobs?
Democrats are much more divided on the Keystone XL pipeline, with lawmakers’ environmental and economic concerns pitted against each other.
The pipeline would run through Heitkamp’s state. She’s long been a vocal proponent, and she lost no time Tuesday praising Trump’s memorandum allowing it to go forward.
“It’s consistent with his pro-jobs message. It’s consistent with his message of building our infrastructure, and I think both of those will go a long way to signaling that American jobs are critically important,” Heitkamp said.
Democratic strategists stressed that joining with Trump isn’t the end goal. “They’ll support the things they agree with and disagree with the things they don’t,” Mellman said. “Just because you believe he made the right decision on one action doesn’t mean you embrace all of it,” Ferguson said.
Republicans caution that it’s too early to expect any unity between Trump and red-state Democrats to shape 2018 races. Even if these two executive actions give some Democrats a short-term boost at home, it’s hard to see actions from January 2017 having much of an effect in November 2018, said GOP pollster Glen Bolger.
What will matter more is the “bigger picture stuff,” namely, the state of the economy, and foreign affairs, Bolger said.
Republicans need gain eight seats in 2018 to get them to the 60-vote threshold it would take to override a Democratic filibuster.
So far, Democrats are optimistic that’s a political calculation Trump seems little concerned with. “He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get himself elected,” Mellman said.
Trump already stunned Republican leaders when he tapped Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke for Interior secretary. The former Navy SEAL had been considered a top contender to take on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in 2018.
And then there were Trump’s other Cabinet choices — or non-choices. Some Republicans had hoped he’d pick a few Democratic incumbents, like Manchin or Heitkamp, whose seats would be difficult for Democrats to hold in 2018 without them.
“His basic perspective of 2018 is less about individual things he does and specific Senate races and more about how he governs overall,” Bolger said, speculating about Trump’s midterm thought-process.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.