Senate GOP struggles to find challengers for some Dems

Associated Press

Des Moines, Iowa — Senate Republicans landed a top-tier candidate in West Virginia but have struggled to recruit well-known GOP challengers in several states where President Donald Trump romped and Democratic incumbents warily face re-election.

Two-term Rep. Evan Jenkins on Monday announced his bid against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s popular former governor whose conservative record often puts him at odds with his party and made him a possible member of Trump’s Cabinet. Jenkins, in a video, said Manchin changed when he got to Washington, spotlighting the senator’s unsuccessful effort on gun control with Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania after the 2012 murders at Sandy Hook school.

“West Virginia values, not anymore,” Jenkins says in the ad.

In Wisconsin, Michigan and other states, Republicans have passed on challenging Democrats. Trump’s abysmal approval ratings loom large as does the typically rough going for the president’s party in midterm elections. Democratic senators in states Trump carried last year have capitalized on their party’s resistance to the president to post robust early fundraising.

And now, Democrats in several of the competitive states are using last week’s House vote to dismantle Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act against would-be GOP challengers who backed the bill that could push millions of Americans off insurance.

Within minutes of the House vote, Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, who might face a challenge from GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, said, “it is outrageous to think that anyone would support legislation that decimates Medicaid,” the federally funded health insurance program for lower-income Americans. “Where is the heart in that?”

To be sure, only a stunning upset could put Senate Democrats in the majority. The GOP holds a 52-48 advantage, and of the 33 Senate seats up next year, 23 are held by Democrats and two by independents who caucus with the party. Ten seats are in states Trump carried. Democrats would have to win all 10, plus defeat an additional three Republican senators, who are defending seats in GOP-friendly territory, such as Arizona, Nebraska and Texas.

But Republicans in states where Trump overwhelmed Hillary Clinton say Democratic senators pose more of a formidable challenge than the political landscape suggested in November. Consider North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, who won by a mere 2,881 votes in 2012.

“Sen. Heitkamp voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. She’s right on gun issues. She’s pro-coal, and pro-oil and gas,” said North Dakota Republican Brian Kalk, a former candidate for Congress. “There has to be an overwhelming reason for voters to leave her.”

In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker and Rep. Sean Duffy have declined to challenge Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin. Instead, less-known Republicans, albeit some wealthy outsiders, are considering bids.

Likewise in Michigan, statewide elected Republicans — Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney Gen. Bill Schuette — seem headed for a 2018 governor’s race primary. Departing Gov. Rick Snyder is not expected to run for the Senate, leaving Rep. Fred Upton and former state supreme court Judge Robert Young looking at the seat held by third-term Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

If Clinton had won, Republicans argued they had a shot at a super-majority in the Senate — 60 plus votes that would allow them to act almost unilaterally.

Now, with Trump in the White House, Republicans are dampening expectations. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this year that his message to GOP senators is “don’t fall in love with the map.”

With Jenkins’ candidacy, seven of the 10 Trump-state Democrats could face the potential of a challenge from House members who voted for the GOP health care bill.

Potential candidates are Reps. Kevin Cramer in North Dakota and Ann Wagner in Missouri where Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill is seeking a third term. Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi is weighing a campaign in Ohio, where state Treasurer Josh Mandel is again challenging Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown.

In Indiana, there is the chance of a House member-versus-member GOP primary, with Luke Messer and Todd Rokita expected to vie for the nomination and a challenge to first-term Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly.

Meanwhile, the 10 Democrats have stockpiled millions during the first quarter of 2017.

McCaskill had raised $2.8 million as of last month and had more than $3 million in her campaign account. Casey has raised nearly as much, $2.7 million, and had $3.8 million in his campaign account. Brown had raised more than $2.4 million and had $5 million on hand, while Stabenow has raised $1.4 million and had a healthy $4.3 million banked.

In Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson had raised roughly $2 million through March, had roughly $3.6 million on hand last month. He’ll likely need it. Nelson is expected to face Gov. Rick Scott, who could finance much of his own campaign with personal wealth.

With his trademark flattop haircut and gnarled fingers from a meat-grinder accident, Montana Sen. Jon Tester projects a ruggedly Western profile, despite narrow victories in 2006 and 2012, says Jason Hielman, chief of staff to Republican Sen. Steve Daines of Montana.

Tester headlined a fundraiser for the Yellowstone National Park Foundation with 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney last week.

“I think certainly all of Tester’s personality and how people perceive him have been very helpful,” Hielman said.