Months from now, as the pressures of midterm elections bear down on a handful of Democratic incumbent U.S. senators in states President Trump won in 2016, pundits may start to recall a meeting held at the White House on a cold January afternoon and wonder if they had missed something important.
Immediately after the meeting, everyone discussed the meeting as a live-mic free-for-all and focused on the theatrics. They speculated openly that Trump held the televised meeting to dispel any notion he was mentally fit.
Few focused on who wasn’t there and why they weren’t.
Once again, the pundits were missing the little nuances of how much American politics really has changed — and what that may mean for future results.
Importantly, three people in states that went heavily for Trump in 2016 — Indiana’s Sen. Joe Donnelly, West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin, and Missouri’s Sen. Claire McCaskill — were all absent. Both offices said they weren't invited.
Normally, the lawmakers who represent states that voted for the other party's presidential nominee, are the most bipartisan — even if it's just to listen. Early on, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, along with Donnelly, hopped on a plane with Trump. But now that they're in the heat of fundraising, they do not want any part of it.
They have made the bet to pick their donors in California and New York over their voters back home.
They could be trying hard to find places to work productively with the president, yet the closer the elections get, they get further from the White House.
It is yet another example of how U.S. Senate races have changed: These races are all national now, and the bulk of the candidate’s money comes from outside their state. The result: They focus on their real constituency, their national donor base. They, in turn, ignore the people in the states they represent.
There isn’t one of those incumbent Democrats whose voters and members of unions in their states would not love to have them work with Trump on infrastructure.
You know who wouldn't like that? The high-dollar donors in San Francisco and New York and L.A.
If anyone of those senators get caught near Trump, all of those donors would ditch them in a minute. They're basically asking McCaskill and Manchin and Donnelly to do an act of levitation. Win without doing the things your voters would like you to do.
The question is will the voters hold them accountable? They're gambling they won't be held accountable. They're gambling that Trump is so polarizing that there are no Trump voters available to them on a positive scale. They're thinking they're going to have to obliterate their opponent, tear their opponent to shreds.
Yet think about the margins here. Trump won Indiana and Missouri by more than 18 points. He won North Dakota and West Virginia by 30-some points. He won Ohio by 9 points. It's not like you only need a few Trump voters to stay home, they would need a lot of them — like a third of them — to stay home. And that is just not going to happen.
So why are they not even faking it? Why aren't they saying, "Oh, I really want to work with the president. I want to be bipartisan. I think we need to work with the president. Here's something the president likes that I like."
They didn't even go to the dang meeting.
If Republicans are smart and paying attention to what wasn’t in that scene from the White House this week for the meeting between the president and Republican and Democratic lawmakers, they will cut ads driving the wedge, illustrating that these vulnerable Democrats had the chance to be bipartisan and decided not to.
Michigan’s Sen. Debbie Stabenow's statement about the tax cuts in Michigan is the perfect example of that risk. When tax reform passed late last year, Stabenow issued a statement that read:
“I’ve said from the beginning that we need tax reform that makes the tax system simpler, puts more money in your pocket, closes tax loopholes that send jobs overseas and supports small businesses and farms across Michigan. Unfortunately that isn’t at all what this republican bill does.”
Ten days later, Fiat Chrysler announced that they would invest more than $1 billion to modernize the company’s Warren Truck Plant in Detroit, adding 2,500 jobs and moving production of its Ram trucks from Mexico. They also announced they would be giving $2,000 bonuses to their hourly U.S. workers.
The company credited the moves to the new tax law.
Maybe their calculation works. Maybe not. But it is yet another nugget in American politics that is changing: The calculation that what your donors in New York and California want you to say and do carries more weight than what your constituents need you to do to improve your state.
Certainly in Michigan that might be wondering what influence Stabenow’s donors had on her decision to not support the tax bill.
Salena Zito is a columnist for the Washington Examiner.