The 2014 Republican rout left just five red-state Democrats in the Senate — and three of them are thinking about an early exit, decisions that could complicate Democrats’ plans to take back the chamber in 2016 and beyond.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, all of whom are up for reelection in 2018, are flirting with bids for governor next year instead. If they follow through and win, Democrats fear they’ll open up seats that could favor the GOP. And if they lose, their chance for reelection to the Senate could plunge too.
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A McCaskill spokesman said the two-term senator is deciding which office would give her the greatest platform to deliver for Missourians, as well as how it might affect her family. Heitkamp’s office won’t address the gubernatorial rumors, but wary North Dakota Republicans are considering a plan to tinker with the state’s Senate vacancy law. Manchin has said that if the partisan fever in Washington doesn’t break soon, he’ll consider running for governor again.
All three have had gubernatorial ambitions for years: Manchin was elected to two terms as West Virginia’s governor before choosing to run in a 2010 special election to replace longtime Sen. Robert Byrd after Byrd’s death. Heitkamp was defeated in the 2000 governor’s race by Republican John Hoeven, with whom she now serves in the Senate. McCaskill lost narrowly to Matt Blunt in the 2004 gubernatorial contest and now serves alongside Blunt’s father, GOP Sen. Roy Blunt.
The three senators will weigh gubernatorial bids in 2016 against staying in the Senate and facing voters in the 2018 midterms. The past two midterms were disastrous for Democrats, though a new president in 2017 and an improving economy could scramble that dynamic. Still, the loss of up to three proven candidates — who represent states increasingly hostile to Democrats — would be, at minimum, a setback for the party.
“It’s definitely a little bit disconcerting that folks like this who can get reelected in red states may be thinking about running for governor instead,” said Jim Manley, a former adviser to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. “They’ve shown an ability to win in states that are pretty tough for Democrats right now.”