SCOTUS battle highlights red-state Democrats' 2018 dilemma

There are 10 Senate Democrats up for re-election in states Trump won in 2016.

The retirement of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy immediately set off a rush of political jockeying ahead of what promises to be a lengthy and contentious confirmation battle.

The most immediate target for Republicans included a familiar list of names, including North Dakota Democrat Heidi Heitkamp. This week the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) labeled Heitkamp as "hiding Heidi," saying the senator "is either going to have to vote to support" President Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, or "kiss her Senate seat goodbye."

Heitkamp, who in 2017 along with three other moderate Democrats voted to confirm Neil Gorusch, Trump's first nominee for the Supreme Court, has struck a cautious tone in the wake of Kennedy's retirement, saying she is preparing to "thoroughly review" Kavanaugh's record.

The rhetorical battle is familiar, and Republicans are quick to pin similar labels on a particular set of Democrats that are at the center of the battle for control of the U.S. Senate.

They are the group of 10 Democratic senators running for re-election in states that Donald Trump won in the 2016 presidential election over Hillary Clinton, and while the states they hail from are all colored by various cultural, economic and political differences, they are nonetheless tied inextricably together as they seek political survival in the coming November midterm election.

The list of 10 includes: Heitkamp, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Bill Nelson of Florida, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Jon Tester of Montana. Those six men and four women span a unique swath of Democratic politics, are hyper-aware of their political brand and connection with voters in their home state and have navigated the treacherous and chaotic nature of the Trump presidency in distinct ways.

The Supreme Court battle is indicative of the larger dilemma facing these "Red State Democrats." Will personal branding and a focus on bread and butter issues like health care and trade be enough to give them the political room to maneuver around the negative assumptions some voters in their state, many of whom voted for Donald Trump, to win re-election in 2018.

When it comes to the Supreme Court, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin's comments that Senate Democrats "understand it's an historic decision," and "about more than the next election," comments starkly underscore the conundrum these Democrats face.

"Even Sen. Dick Durbin said he was fine with his 2018 colleagues losing re-election just to obstruct President Trump," said Katie Martin, the Communications Director of the NRSC, "The dysfunction within the Democratic Party is on full display with this vote."

Part of the answer to how Democrats are straddling that difficult line lies in how these senators have voted on various pieces of legislation in the Trump era.

According to FiveThirtyEight, Baldwin votes in line with a Trump position just 21.9 percent of the time, the lowest number of the group, while Manchin votes in line with Trump 60.8 percent of the time, the highest. Within that range exist this group of ten Democrats on which the control of the U.S. Senate rests.

At a time when the Democratic Party is grappling with a battle between its progressive and establishment wings, these ten Democrats represent a key cross-section of the Democratic Party.

Most speak of a desire to work with President Trump when it benefits their state and vociferously oppose him when they believe he acts against their constituents interests. ABC News reached out to each of the ten campaigns to ask how they believe the fact that President Trump won their state affects how they're approaching 2018.

Not all campaigns directly responses to ABC News' request, but a thorough look at each individual reveals important similarities and differences across this pivotal group.

The firm liberals

It should come as no surprise that of the ten Democrats that align more traditionally with the party's left flank, all represent states where Trump's margin of victory was especially tight in 2016. The Rust Belt was key to Trump's victory in 2016, and an average of the margins of victory for Trump in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin comes to just 0.8 percent. Ohio, where Trump scored an over 8-point win in 2016, is a slight exception to that rule, even if he was barely able to crack 50 percent of the total vote in the state.

Sens. Baldwin, Brown, Casey and Stabenow have all maintained solidly liberal voting records during the first years of the Trump presidency, opposing most major cabinet and judicial nominees that Trump has put forward, and speaking out strongly against the GOP tax plan and healthcare overhaul.

But that is not to say these senators don't also attempt to seek out common ground with Trump to court certain voter groups they know they will need to form a winning coalition in November.

Brown, the gravelly voiced longtime staple in Ohio politics, is quick to point out that he and President Trump strike a similar tune on trade. Brown voted against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1993, and opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership championed by President Barack Obama, two votes his campaign provides as evidence that he is willing to break with his own party on certain issues.

"Sherrod has led the fight against unfair trade deals that have hurt Ohio’s economy and eliminated good-paying American jobs," Brown's campaign Press Secretary Rachel Petri told ABC News, "He's been consistent that he'll work with anyone when it's right for Ohio, but he'll stand up to either party when their policies hurt workers and families."

Brown's rhetoric on tariffs and China's "cheating" is often not that far off from the frustration often vented by Trump on social media.

It is indeed in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan where a winning coalition of energized Clinton-voters and disillusioned Trump voters could save these incumbents from defeat in 2018.

"In Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or even Ohio, you probably have to win some Trump voters but you don’t necessarily have to win Trump approvers -- a subtle but important difference," said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"Between Trump’s relatively mediocre approval in a lot of these states, and the fact that you do have some legitimate Trump Democrats who are probably going to come home, at least for 2018, plus all the Clinton voters in the state, that provides a pretty decent base for a number of these senators," Kondik added, with the caveat that Manchin, Heitkamp and Tester do not face the same type of political environment in their races.

In the Badger State, Baldwin's hopes largely rest on a unique set of 13 counties that voted for Trump for president in 2016, Scott Walker for governor in 2014 but broke for both Baldwin and Barack Obama in 2012. Peppered across the state, these mostly rural counties are where Baldwin hopes to focus her "Buy American" message and tap into the same strain of economic populism that enabled Donald Trump to become the first Republican since Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Casey, the son of a former governor, is known as a more pro-life member of the Democratic caucus but votes the Trump line just 29.7 percent of the time. But running against the ardently pro-Trump Congressman Lou Barletta this cycle has afforded Casey a degree of room to maneuver politically in a way he likely would not have in a midterm cycle with a relatively unpopular Republican that narrowly won his home state occupying the White House.

Earlier this week, Casey came out against Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court before it was announced that Kavanaugh was the pick. In a statement Casey struck a populist tone, decrying "corporate America," and "Washington special interests" he says were behind the process.

"I was elected to represent all Pennsylvanians. I was not elected to genuflect to the hard Right, who are funded by corporate America," Casey said.

The pragmatists

Occupying a relative middle ground within the Democratic caucus are three Senators with varying odds for re-election and some progressive bona fides: Nelson, McCaskill and Tester.

While all three are a bit less locked into the Democratic line, they vote with Democrats most of the time. Nelson, McCaskill and Tester all held firm with Democrats on immigration, taxes and the Affordable Care Act.

The three Senators voted to roll back the Dodd-Frank Act, a key liberal financial reform, and have voted to confirm some of Trump’s cabinet nominees, including Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. Nelson was one of six Democratic Senators to vote in favor of confirming Gina Haspel as CIA Director, despite Democratic objections to her involvement in CIA “black sites.”

Nevertheless, all three are not afraid of taking more progressive stands on issues and running on their liberal records.

In her race in Missouri, McCaskill has vocally defended the Affordable Care Act and its provision that protects insurers from rejecting coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Her opponent, Josh Hawley, is participating in a pending lawsuit challenging the provision in his capacity as the state’s Attorney General.

McCaskill has been emphasizing her ability to work hard for Missouri in the Senate in her campaign, putting out a campaign ad that highlighted the fifty town hall meetings she held with constituents last year. The Senator has also been driving across the state on an RV tour to engage with constituents. McCaskill came under fire for the tour, however, as she ultimately admitted that she had used a private plane during part of her tour.

In Montana, Tester sells his lifelong ties to Montana to contrast with his opponent Matt Rosendale, who grew up in Maryland. Tester has also shown a willingness to incorporate progressive rhetoric into his campaign, aligning himself strongly with local unions and defending a woman’s right to choose on abortion.

Despite his progressive credentials, Tester has packaged his policies in a way that appeals in a Republican-leaning state like Montana. On reproductive health issues, Tester has framed his support for abortion rights as a small-government issue.

Nelson has been relatively quiet so far in his re-election bid against Republican Governor Rick Scott. Nelson, a former NASA astronaut and fifth-generation Floridian, is vying for his fourth term but has kept a low profile. Nevertheless, Nelson is accumulating campaign money as he is currently sitting on over $10 million in funds. Scott is putting pressure on Nelson, however, accumulating record-breaking fundraising hauls. Nelson will likely step up his campaign efforts as the election draws nearer.

In the campaigning Nelson has already done, he has relied on his astronaut background as a representation of how he looks beyond political decisions in his role as a Senator, incorporating it into an ad he released in May.

"When I looked back at our planet," Nelson says as dramatic music plays over shots of the space shuttle, "I didn't see political divisions. I saw how we're all in this together, bound by timeless values we all share."

These three senators are relatively unlikely to join Republicans in confirming Kavanaugh, as all three voted against Gorsuch’s confirmation last year. Nelson has already said publicly before the announcement of Kavanaugh that he expects to vote against a Supreme Court nominee Trump puts out.

The true moderates

In this group are three particularly moderate and particularly vulnerable Democrats: Heitkamp, Manchin and Donnelly. These three Democrats are among the most conservative in their caucus, voting with Trump over 50 percent of the time.

All three voted to confirm most of Trump’s cabinet nominees and even voted for some conservative measures. Heitkamp, Manchin and Donnelly all voted to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch last year and for the Republican “sanctuary cities” immigration bill, while the latter two joined Senate Republicans in favor of a bill that would ban abortion at 20 weeks.

Despite these votes straying from the Democratic line, all three held firm in opposing the tax bill Republicans passed last year as well as the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

For these three Democrats, the message to voters is that they are independent voices willing to work with anyone who will help put their state first. All three have taken a range of stances that would cater to local voters, with Manchin backing efforts to revive West Virginia’s struggling coal industry, and both Heitkamp and Donnelly touting their support for the Farm Bill and opposition to Trump’s tariffs in their farm-heavy states.

When running as Democrats in states where the national Democratic brand turns off voters, these Senators emphasize their local ties and try to project a personality that voters are attracted to.

In North Dakota, Heitkamp’s campaign messaging has played to her background as a born-and-bred North Dakotan and a member of a prominent in-state family, something that plays well in an environment where voters look for a candidate who both looks out for local interests and play up their local roots, according to Mark Jendrysik, a political science professor at the University of North Dakota.

“Senator Heitkamp is an interesting phenomenon. She is in many ways a unique individual in state politics. She sold herself as an independent, not beholden to party orthodoxy,” Jendrysik said. “North Dakotans are aggressively humble. She really has worked that angle-- not dour, but definitely serious, focused, attached to the soil, grown up here.”

The face-to-face, retail politicking aspect of the race is something that Manchin is also leaning into in his race in West Virginia. Manchin has positioned himself as a both a proud independent and a proud West Virginian in his campaign.

“People here have been screwed by both political parties,” Manchin proclaimed in an ad launched in April. Turning to his local roots, Manchin added, ”Yes, Washington sucks, but West Virginians don’t give up.”

Patrick Hickey, a political science professor at the University of West Virginia, sees Manchin’s branding as a double-edged sword.

“People are looking for an authentic personality who is not a politician. It both helps and hurts Manchin in this race. Manchin has built a brand as an independent person. People like him as a person and like this independent brand, but he’s a career politician-- but so is his opponent,” he said.

In an effort to leverage Trump’s relatively high approval ratings Republican candidates in these states have sought to counter all three by turning social issues, particularly abortion and its ties to the upcoming confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, into parts of their campaign.

Manchin's opponent, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, encouraged his supporters this week to sign a petition urging Manchin to back Kavanaugh's nomination, referencing President Trump's 2016 margin of victory in his pitch to supporters.

"West Virginia voters were clear in 2016 when they overwhelmingly elected President Trump by more than 40 points," Morrisey said Wednesday, "They have an opportunity to remind Sen. Manchin to stand with our President and a highly-qualified Supreme Court nominee."

Mike Braun, challenging Donnelly in Indiana, criticized Donnelly for not immediately announcing his support for Kavanaugh’s nomination.