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Will Senate Democrats Work With Trump? The 10 Senators To Watch

President Trump sits between Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia at the White House on Thursday.
Evan Vucci
President Trump sits between Democratic Sens. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia at the White House on Thursday.

President Trump met with a group of senators Thursday at the White House — six Democrats and four Republicans — in an attempt to build support for his Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch.

Trump especially cozied-up to two of the Democrats: Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The president sat between them at lunch.

"Today we had a needed bipartisan discussion that will hopefully help our country by enabling the president and Congress to work together to get results," Heitkamp said afterward. Manchin echoed his colleague, calling it a "very productive meeting."

The two centrist lawmakers have a lot in common: They both represent states Trump won big in 2016. They are both up for re-election next year. And they're both on the White House's short list of potential cross-party allies in a narrowly divided U.S. Senate.

Trump's overtures to Heitkamp and Manchin started shortly after Election Day. They were invited to Trump Tower for early meet-and-greets, and Trump flirted with, but ultimately passed on, tapping them to serve in his cabinet. They've also been rare voices of Democratic support for some of Trump's early actions, including advancing approval of two oil pipelines.

Heitkamp and Manchin are two of 10 Democrats running for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump won. That makes them potential swing votes in the Senate this year, not just on the upcoming Supreme Court confirmation process for Neil Gorsuch, but on any number of Trump's legislative priorities.

Trump will be confronted with one of a president's most frustrating roadblocks in Washington: the reality that most major legislative actions require 60 votes to get through the Senate. The White House's charm offensive also extended Thursday to Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, who likewise represent states Trump won by double-digits.

This group of Red State Democrats also includes Claire McCaskill of Missouri, another state Trump won by double digits. McCaskill did not visit the White House Thursday.

The other five Democratic senators to watch represent familiar battleground states: Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bill Nelson of Florida, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan — all states with large white working-class voting blocs which swung hard in favor of Trump and the Republican Party, and which Democrats desperately want to win back in time for the midterms.

While Trump carried Ohio by eight points, the remaining four senators are in more competitive states that Trump won by narrow margins of two points or less.

Since Trump's victory, congressional Democrats have said that if Trump follows through on his campaign promises to negotiate better trade deals, protect entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, support paid family leave policies and spend more on infrastructure, he will likely find Democrats willing to negotiate on what have traditionally been parts of their party's platform.

But skepticism is growing among Democrats that Trump will buck the Republican Party on those issues. Two of these Red State Democrats, Brown and Baldwin, have already declared opposition to Gorsuch's nomination for the Supreme Court, and they are staking out positions more in line with the party's progressive wing. McCaskill has avoided Trump but aligned with other Republicans: She has linked up with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as a voice opposing Russia in Congress.

And so far, Democrats have largely stuck together when the partisan heat was on, such as their unanimous opposition to Betsy DeVos's nomination for Education secretary. Democrats are similarly lining up to oppose Georgia Rep. Tom Price for Health and Human Services secretary. Heitkamp announced her opposition to Price Thursday afternoon, shortly after the White House meeting. (One notable exception: Manchin was the lone Democrat to support Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions for attorney general.)

The Gorsuch nomination fight will be one of the earliest test battles for how persuasive the White House can be with these Democrats, and which ones are willing to work with a deeply polarizing president.

It's a political balancing act that these 10 Democrats will face for the next two years. Each senator, of course, will have calculations to make on how a given issue will resonate at home.

But the challenge remains the same: Will voters in 2018 be more inclined to re-elect a Democratic senator who found ways to work with the Trump administration, or who joined the growing Democratic Party movement to resist him at every turn?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.