Earlier this month, Mike Pompeo looked like he might face a historic battle against his confirmation to become the next secretary of state. Republican Senator Rand Paul had signaled for weeks that he would vote against him. Jeff Flake said he was undecided, and it was still up in the air as to whether Senate Democrats would rally the troops and come out in full force against him.
But last Thursday, red-state Democrat Heidi Heitkamp announced her support for Pompeo. By Monday, Paul made a last-minute switch, and Pompeo’s nomination advanced out of committee. That same day, two more red-state Senate Democrats—West Virginia’s Joe Manchin and Indiana’s Joe Donnelly—also gave Pompeo a boost when they announced that they would vote for him. With Republicans holding a 51–49 majority in the Senate, the support of three Democrats joining with the GOP all but assured Pompeo would be confirmed this week. On Thursday, the Senate ended up confirming him 57 to 42, with support from six Democrats and one independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
In the national media, the Democrats’ decision to vote for Pompeo was framed around the fact that they are soon facing tough re-election battles in red states. “Preserving those senators’ political futures is top of mind for [Chuck] Schumer,” Politico wrote. The Washington Post pointed out that “Heitkamp and Manchin are running for reelection in states that Trump won by double digits in 2016, so they have an incentive to be seen as working with the president.”
The assumption here is that voting against Trump’s Cabinet nominee will lose these senators votes. Of course, preserving those Senate seats was certainly a more important goal for Democrats than blocking Pompeo. But there is one question that no one seems to be asking: Do voters really care—let alone hold grudges—about where their elected officials stood on Pompeo’s nomination?
Ryan Frankenberry, state director of West Virginia’s Working Families Party, a progressive political party, found the suggestion that home-state voters are closely watching these Senate votes dubious.
“I would say that the average voter in America probably couldn’t name Rex Tillerson as the former secretary of state,” Frankenberry told Splinter.
Even if they could name someone like Tillerson, it’s not at all clear that the activities of the average Cabinet official make a difference to people. In a March Politico poll, for instance, the single biggest response voters had when they were asked what they thought of Tillerson was “no opinion.”
Frankenberry said that, in his experience, when compared to bread and butter issues like healthcare and the economy, confirmation votes are low on people’s list of political priorities. And, as Matt Grossman, political scientist at Michigan State University, pointed out, “There’s very little evidence that executive nomination votes would make a difference” in the way people vote.
In other words, the chances that a voter would know who Pompeo was, then have an opinion about him, then know how their senator voted on his confirmation, and then incorporate that into their vote, is, well, low.
The worry, most people I spoke with agreed, was less about any specific confirmation vote, and more that these senators want to mitigate any risk of appearing to be in lockstep with the national Democratic Party.
“They don’t want any local media story that says, ‘Oh is he becoming closer to Chuck?’” Grossman told me. Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, pointed out that siding with Trump’s nominee is a “costless” way “for red-state Democrats to signal that they’re not entirely anti-Trump,” given that Pompeo didn’t face a particularly high chance of actually not being confirmed, as was the case for more divisive nominees like Betsy DeVos.
Of course, a senator like Manchin, who votes with Trump’s agenda over 60 percent of the time, already has a pretty long record of reaching across the aisle. But even this broader sort of bipartisanship matters increasingly less to voters. In a wide-ranging study out on Thursday, the Pew Research Center found the share of Democrats who want their elected officials to compromise has dropped sharply in the last year, from 69 percent to 46 percent, while Republicans had a smaller drop from 46 percent to 44 percent. This would appear to mean that, for Democrats, the real danger lies with betraying their own voters, who are now more suspicious of compromise with Republicans, rather than with not reaching out to Republicans, who care as little as they ever did. There was also a moment—before Rand flipped and Heitkamp announced her support—where it seemed that a strong opposition to Pompeo, fueled by progressive activists, could have possibly coalesced, which would have raised the stakes for those Democrats.
The one incontrovertible fact is that Pompeo’s confirmation is a threat. Despite his attempts to paint himself otherwise in an effort to garner Senate votes, Pompeo is an Islamophobic hawk who has advocated for regime change in North Korea, rolling back the nuclear deal with Iran, and infamously peddled conspiracy theories during the Benghazi investigation. (If you need any more proof of Pompeo’s character, remember how he has conveniently left unchallenged the false claim that he fought in the Gulf War.) His presence as the country’s top diplomat is sure to only further feed an aggressive president’s most aggressive instincts at a time when Trump is poised for a historic meeting with North Korea’s leader and about to hit a deadline on reviewing the Iran sanctions.
Now, the Democrats let this man slide through, all while barely putting up a fight. And it’s unlikely that voters would have noticed even if they had.