Republican Canaries in the Impeachment Coal Mine

Four senators up for re-election in swing states will be important leading indicators of GOP sentiments

Amid the hothouse atmosphere that has developed in Washington in recent days, some are seeing a strategy emerging from President Trump’s increasingly frequent and brazen broadsides against his opponents in the impeachment debate.

At this point, the strategy goes, Mr. Trump might as well urge House Democrats to bring on an impeachment case. That seems likely to happen anyway, so get your core supporters as agitated as possible in preparation. The impeachment case then would move to the Senate, controlled by fellow Republicans, where a loyal bloc of supporters would acquit the president.

Mr. Trump then could claim exoneration, his base would be more angry and energized than ever, and—added bonus—along the way, former Vice President Joe Biden would have been knocked out as the leading Democratic presidential contender, muddied by Mr. Trump’s frequent charges he engaged in shady activities in Ukraine. That means the president would run for re-election instead against Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a weaker general-election foe.

The theory is plausible enough, and even supported by the president’s declaration Friday that Democrats are “all in line” to impeach him.

However, the theory hinges on one key element: a Republican firewall that remains solid in the Senate to protect the president.

That suggests the focus in the impeachment drama, heretofore on House Democrats, increasingly will shift to Senate Republicans. And in the first instance, that focus will be most intense on four particular Senate Republicans.

They are the four Senate Republicans up for re-election next year in swing states, where support for Mr. Trump isn’t as strong as it is in the deep-red states many of their colleagues represent. They are Sens.

  1. Martha McSally of Arizona;
  2. Cory Gardner of Colorado;
  3. Susan Collins of Maine; and
  4. Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Comments critical of the president from sometimes-renegade Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Ben Sasse of Nebraska are noteworthy, but these four will be far more important leading indicators of GOP sentiments.

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, is facing a difficult re-election race in his state of Colorado, where 56% of voters disapprove of President Trump. PHOTO: SUSAN WALSH/ASSOCIATED PRESS

These four face the toughest re-election races of any Republicans next year. The authoritative Cook Political Report rates the Arizona, Colorado and Maine races as tossups, and the North Carolina race as one that leans Republican.

They come from states where opinions of Mr. Trump are deeply divided. In fact, in each of the four states, Mr. Trump’s approval ratings are slightly underwater, meaning voters disapprove of him more than they approve of him, according to the rolling Morning Consult state-by-state poll. The picture is particularly difficult for Colorado’s Sen. Gardner; in his state, 41% of voters approve of Mr. Trump, while 56% disapprove.

Thus, when it comes to rendering judgment on the president, each of these four can be sure they will anger a significant chunk of their constituency no matter what they do. Their states have nearly an equal supply of fervent Trump supporters and Trump haters, with each group prepared to extract a painful price depending on how their senator behaves.

In fact, the four senators already began to feel the heat last week, when an organization named Need to Impeach began running ads in their states pressuring them to support impeachment. Need to Impeach, which is largely funded by billionaire and now Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, is putting $3.1 million into running ads on television and on the internet. “How can we have a president who doesn’t think the law applies to him?” the ads ask, as patriotic images run in the background. “We are patriots who have always protected democracy. Will our senator?”

Kevin Mack, the top political strategist for Need to Impeach, says the ads represent a significant shift in the group’s efforts. Before now, the organization has focused on pressuring House Democrats to support impeaching Mr. Trump. With that goal seemingly reached, Need to Impeach is now shifting fire to Senate Republicans.

Next up on the group’s target list, Mr. Mack says, is the biggest Senate Republican of all: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who faces his own re-election battle in Kentucky next year.

The climb to the kind of supermajority needed in the Senate to convict and oust Mr. Trump is a steep one; the Constitution requires 67 Senate votes to convict an impeached president, and that means 20 Republican senators would have to turn on Mr. Trump. That seems wildly implausible right now.

Mr. Mack acknowledges the difficulty, but also argues: “One thing we’ve learned on this is that as soon as you get a few people to move your way it opens the floodgates and lots of people come your way.”

The Senate test remains a ways off. But when time comes to really gauge Republican backing for the president, it’s easy to know which four Senators represent the canaries in the coal mine.

Mitch McConnell, Too, Welcomes Russian Interference

Or at least he won’t let Congress do anything to stop it.

Why won’t Mitch McConnell protect our elections from outside interference?

His Republican colleagues in the Senate want to do something. That’s why some of the most conservative members of his caucus are working with Democrats to improve the nation’s election security.

One proposal, according to The New York Times, would “require internet companies like Facebook to disclose the purchasers of political ads.” Another, devised by Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, would “impose mandatory sanctions on anyone who attacks an American election.” Yet another, the brainchild of Senators James Lankford of Oklahoma and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, would “codify cyber information-sharing initiatives between federal intelligence services and state election officials.”

House Democrats have already introduced legislation to bolster election security and would most likely work with the Senate to put together a compromise proposal should a bill pass that chamber. But McConnell refuses to consider any legislation on election security during this congressional term. For the Senate majority leader, the problem has already been solved, and this rare show of bipartisan cooperation doesn’t matter. “I think the majority leader is of the view that this debate reaches no conclusion,” Roy Blunt of Missouri, a McConnell ally, said.

The easiest explanation for McConnell’s opposition to the various election security proposals is captured in one word: Trump. Only recently has the president acknowledged foreign interference in the 2016 election. “Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected,” Trump said last month on Twitter, blasting Robert Mueller’s investigation. “It was a crime that didn’t exist.” Later, however, he returned to his usual position of denying any assistance or interference at all. “Russia did not get me elected,” he said.

The president’s endless denial makes sense: To acknowledge any election interference on his behalf is to undermine the legitimacy of his victory, even if the hacking and disinformation were not decisive.

McConnell works closely with the White House to put conservative judicial nominees on the federal bench. It’s his key priority. “I love the tax bill and a lot of the other things we did,” McConnell said in an interview last year. “But I think lifetime appointments — not only to the Supreme Court but to the circuit courts — are the way you have the longest-lasting impact on the country.” He needs a good relationship with the president. Why, then, would he give this legislation a chance to pass? Why antagonize an ally?

But McConnell’s relationship with Trump isn’t the only way to explain his opposition to these proposals. For the past two decades of his Senate career, McConnell has been a tireless opponent of openness, accessibility and transparency in elections. He stood against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, praised the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United and, more recently, blasted Democrats for their push to expand access to the ballot. He’s driven by a simple calculation: that secure, open elections are elections that McConnell — and the Republican Party he leads in the Senate — are less likely to win.

McConnell’s career makes clear that he has few, if any, political and ideological convictions. As Alec MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica, observes in “The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell,” McConnell was reliably pro-choice until it became inconvenient and pro-union when it would get him votes. But his most revealing turnaround was on campaign finance.

As chairman of his county Republican Party in the 1970s, he backed aggressive campaign finance reform. He wanted “drastically” lower contribution limits, full donor disclosure, a ceiling on overall spending and public financing of elections. “Many qualified and ethical persons are either totally priced out of the election marketplace or will not submit themselves to questionable, or downright illicit, practices that may accompany the current electoral process,” he wrote in a 1973 op-ed for The Courier-Journal in Kentucky.

In 1990, as the junior senator from Kentucky, he introduced legislation to abolish political action committees. In 1993, he backed a ban on funds collected outside the contribution limits for individual candidates — what had come to be known as “soft money.” “Soft money should be banned,” McConnell wrote at the time. “All campaign spending should be on the top of the table where voters can see it.” By the end of the decade, however, McConnell would be a reliable foe of virtually every limit on the ability to raise and spend money in politics.

The reasons for his reversal were straightforward. At heart, McConnell is a partisan. When he thought campaign finance reform would harm Democrats or help him win higher office, he backed campaign finance reform. When he thought Democrats relied on soft money, he tried to ban soft money. But when those funds began to fill his campaign war chest, he changed his tune. By 1997, he had nothing but good things to say about soft money. “Soft money is just a euphemism for free speech,” he said. For McConnell, winning was the only thing that mattered, and anything it took to win was fair game.

Let’s Ditch Mitch

The Senate majority leader comes out of his shell.

Mitch, on the other hand, has a longstanding alliance with the National Rifle Association, which has shown its affection to the tune of about $1.3 million in support. Anything the N.R.A. dislikes never gets the chance to come up for a Senate vote. Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act is moldering away in a corner because the N.R.A. doesn’t want authorities taking guns away from domestic abusers.

It’s been another terrible year of mass shooting violence. One simple, very popular response would be to improve the background checks for gun purchases. It would at least show our elected officials care about the crisis.

Such a bill passed the House of Representatives and went to the Senate where it’s, um, lying around somewhere. “There’s a whole bunch of Republican support, but he won’t let it move to the floor,” said minority leader Chuck Schumer.

This goes on a lot. McConnell, who has near total control over what comes up for a vote, sits on things he doesn’t like until they smother. Farewell, immigration reform, Paycheck Fairness Act, legislation protecting Americans with pre-existing conditions, lowering prescription drug prices, protecting election security, restoring net neutrality.