- - Monday, September 4, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A Texas politician once sneered that “the middle of the road is for yellow lines and dead armadillos.” But it’s also a haven, if only a temporary one, for politicians suddenly afraid of the life they’ve cultivated at the edge.

Both the right and the left are beginning to get serious about the 2018 congressional election, and vulnerable Democratic senators in red states, especially states that President Trump won “bigly,” are racing to join the armadillos. The edge is no place for a frightened incumbent.

Two such frightened senators, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Frank Donnelly of Indiana, are prominent examples of the endangered Democratic senators running for re-election next year. Both won in 2012, in no small part because their Republican opponents self-destructed, asphyxiated by stuffing both feet in their mouths at once with dumb and indefensible remarks about rape, pregnancy and abortion.

Both Mrs. McCaskill and Mr. Donnelly are getting a little help with their election-year makeovers to pose at centrists. The Washington Post, for example, has already contributed fawning profiles of Mrs. McCaskill and Mr. Donnelly as conservatives in their hearts of hearts. Other senators, including Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, Jon Tester of Montana, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bill Nelson of Florida, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, will need such face work, too.

The Post’s profiles note that both Mrs. McCaskill and Mr. Donnelly have pointedly muted their criticism of Mr. Trump. The president won Missouri by 18.5 percentage points and Indiana by 19. Mr. Donnelly assures Hoosiers he’s working with the president on creating jobs and combating the opioid-addiction crisis. “Anywhere we’ve got some common-sense stuff, count me in,” he says. He’s reminding them that he voted to confirm more Trump Cabinet nominees than all but four other Democratic senators, and he was one of three Democrats who voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court.

“My job is not to fight the president,” Mrs. McCaskill tells town-hall crowds. “My job is to fight for Missourians.” She says vandals who deface statues should be prosecuted, and thinks single-payer health care and trying to impeach the president are bad ideas.

Red-state Democrats have to walk a tightrope, because if they get “squishy” in courting moderate and independent voters (and maybe even a few Republicans), they risk turning off the fire-breathers who make the most noise in the Democratic Party base and who are automatically against anything and everything Mr. Trump wants to do.

The firebrands of “the resistance” crave red meat (or robust beansprouts in the militant vegan collective) and might refuse to donate to, or work for, candidates who have no respect for the diets of the firebrands.

The McCaskill makeover and the Donnelly do-over, depicting them as “bipartisan problem solvers,” might not work any better than similar plastic surgery worked in 2014 for Mark Udall of Colorado, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mark Begich of Alaska. Mark Warner of Virginia was barely spared from being sent home to get a job by a third-party spoiler. Mr. Donnelly need only to look at what happened to former Sen. Evan Bayh in their home state, who lost a comeback attempt by 10 points.

Republicans in Indiana think Mr. Donnelly’s seat is ripe for recovery. Two Republican members of the House, Todd Rokita and Luke Messer, are giving up safe House seats to seek the Republican nomination to oppose Mr. Donnelly in the general election. Mrs. McCaskill will likely face state Attorney General Josh Hawley, who won more votes last year than Mr. Trump did.

The problem with makeovers in an election year is that they’re merely cosmetic, like a shot of Botox. Botox wouldn’t revive a dead armadillo and it’s not likely to revive a senator wounded by his own hand.

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