Cabinet picks boost 2018 Dems

President Trump’s Cabinet decisions have given Democrats a few bright spots ahead of an otherwise grim 2018 Senate cycle.

Democratic Sens. Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn Heitkamp70 former senators propose bipartisan caucus for incumbents Susan Collins set to play pivotal role in impeachment drama Pro-trade group launches media buy as Trump and Democrats near deal on new NAFTA MORE (N.D.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump administration seeks to use global aid for nuclear projects Shelley Moore Capito wins Senate primary West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice wins GOP gubernatorial primary MORE (W.Va.), both of whom Trump had considered for administration roles, will remain in the upper chamber. Meanwhile, a top prospective GOP challenger to Sen. Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenate confirms Trump’s watchdog for coronavirus funds Montana barrels toward blockbuster Senate fight The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip MORE (D-Mont.) has been tapped to serve as Interior secretary.

“Given the number of Democrats up [for reelection in 2018], I don’t expect Democrats to catch a lot of breaks, but they sure did in this particular instance,” said Jim Manley, who served as an aide to former Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid says he’s cancer free White House gets jolt from strong jobs report Murkowski, Mattis criticism ratchets up pressure on GOP over Trump MORE (D-Nev.).

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Heitkamp had been a leading candidate for Agriculture secretary, but she hinted prior to Trump’s announcement that she’d “likely” stay in the Senate. Reid also expressed confidence that she would stay. Trump named former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) to lead the Agriculture Department last week.

Had Heitkamp taken the role, the state’s Republican governor would have been required to hold a special election within 95 days of the vacancy. In a state with a shallow Democratic bench, a GOP candidate would have had a good chance of boosting the party’s ranks in the senate to 53 seats.

Heitkamp has strong roots in North Dakota and served two terms as attorney general in the state. She unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2000 against now-Sen. John HoevenJohn Henry HoevenBipartisan senators seek funding for pork producers forced to euthanize livestock House Republicans threaten pushback on Saudi Arabia amid oil market slump Overnight Energy: Trump rollback of Obama mileage standards faces court challenges | Court strikes down EPA suspension of Obama greenhouse gas rule | Trump floats cutting domestic oil production MORE (R- N.D.).

Manchin also announced that he would remain in the upper chamber after his meeting with Trump last month. The West Virginia Democrat was under consideration for the Energy secretary nod, which ultimately went to former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).

Manchin, a conservative Democrat who regularly bucks his own party, is a known quantity in his state. Before joining the Senate in 2010, he served as West Virginia’s governor, its secretary of State and as a state legislator in both chambers.

Senate Democrats had publicly discouraged Manchin from taking a job in the Trump administration, even saying that they’ve tried to keep him “happy” so he wouldn’t jump ship. 

If he left for a Cabinet post, West Virginia’s Democratic governor would have had to fill the vacancy until Manchin’s term ended in 2018. Even if he appointed a Democrat, though, the interim senator wouldn’t have the same name recognition and credentials as Manchin in a state Trump won by more than 40 percentage points.

Trump delivered more good news for Democrats when he chose Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (R) to helm the Interior Department after earlier reports suggested Rep. Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersBipartisan senators call for investigation of TikTok’s child privacy policies Hillicon Valley: Facebook permanently shifting thousands of jobs to remote work | Congressional action on driverless cars hits speed bump during pandemic | Republicans grill TikTok over data privacy concerns Top Commerce Republicans grill TikTok parent company MORE (R-Wash.) would get the job. 

Zinke, who recently won a second term to his at-large seat, was being groomed to unseat Tester. He’s viewed by both parties as a heavyweight GOP contender against the Montana senator.

Even with these small victories, Democrats still have an uphill battle in defending 25 seats, 10 of which are in states that Trump carried in 2016. Republicans, on the other hand, are defending eight states.

Republicans will be targeting Democratic seats to try to boost their slim Senate lead to a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority. A 60-seat GOP majority in the Senate would further empower a party that also controls the White House and the House. 

“[Democrats] have some good candidates out there, but there are so many that will have to be defended, they’re not going to be able to adequately do that for everybody,” a senior Republican strategist told The Hill.

“It’s going to take so much money to defend them, and now they’re out of the White House.”

So far, no declared Republican challengers have materialized in any of the three seats affected by Trump’s Cabinet picks, but several high-profile prospects have been floated. 

Nearly two years out from the midterms, National Republicans have already painted a target on Manchin’s back. As a government shutdown loomed in December because of efforts by Manchin and other Democratic senators to renew healthcare provisions for retired miners, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sent out an email that labeled it “Joe Manchin’s Government Shutdown.” 

Manchin championed the funding bill fight, though the shutdown was ultimately avoided.

The Republican strategist noted to The Hill that Manchin’s 2018 reelection race will likely be his toughest challenge to date, saying that he “walked to the finish line” in past races. The Democratic senator handily defeated Republican John Raese twice: by 10 points in a 2010 special election and by 24 points in 2012. 

In Montana, a state Trump carried by 20 points, Tester will face a difficult race even if Zinke is out of the running.

And if Zinke is confirmed, he could potentially serve in Trump’s administration for about a year and still file for a Senate bid. The 2018 filing date isn’t posted yet, but candidates had until March 2016 to file in that year’s primary. Plus, other Republicans are likely to mount their own bids.

As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Tester oversaw devastating losses in 2016. But he also has a long history in political office, serving as a state senator for eight years and as president of the chamber for the last two years of his tenure.

And in North Dakota, a potential Republican challenger to Heitkamp is emerging. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote GOP senator to try to reverse requirement that Pentagon remove Confederate names from bases No, ‘blue states’ do not bail out ‘red states’ MORE (R-Ky.) and incoming NRSC chairman Sen. Cory GardnerCory Scott GardnerSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Interior faces legal scrutiny for keeping controversial acting leaders in office | White House faces suit on order lifting endangered species protections | Lawmakers seek investigation of Park Police after clearing of protesters The Hill’s Campaign Report: Republicans go on attack over calls to ‘defund the police’ MORE (R-Colo.) huddled with Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) about a potential bid, a source told The Hill in early December. 

One of the biggest question marks hanging over the 2018 elections is the success or failure of Trump during the first two years of his administration. His performance in office could dramatically affect turnout, which is typically low in midterms.

Regardless of how voters view Trump, Manley said, vulnerable Senate Democrats will likely be looking for ways to find common ground with Republicans — if the GOP gives them opportunities.

“They’re going to be under pressure to find ways to vote with Republicans,” Manley said. “The question is whether Republicans are going to give them a chance by offering compromises or not.”

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