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.
- Martha McSally of Arizona;
- Cory Gardner of Colorado;
- Susan Collins of Maine; and
- 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.
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.
What’s behind the Democrats’ power play
Democrats are rushing into impeachment despite the knowledge that, given what we know now, the Senate will not remove Donald Trump from office. Why is Nancy Pelosi doing this?
Because she has resigned herself to the argument that impeaching Trump is the way for Democrats to win the presidency and Senate 13 months from now. Pelosi’s bank shot isn’t aimed at Trump’s conviction on the Hill. It’s aimed at his loss at the polls.
American University professor Allan Lichtman best expressed the political logic in a recent op-ed. His “13 keys” model, along with most quantitative forecasts, currently favors Trump’s reelection. Lichtman says impeachment would change that by tarnishing the incumbent with scandal. The facts of the case, and whether the Senate convicts, do not matter.
Impeachment alone would not doom Trump according to Lichtman’s model. What it might do is trigger additional events that would help Democrats. The cumulative effect would be a Republican loss.
The conventional wisdom that impeachment backfired on the Republicans in 1998 has been overturned. Yes, the argument goes, the GOP gave up some House seats. That did not stop them from winning the presidency and both chambers of Congress two years later. Impeachment contributed to “Clinton fatigue.” It boosted the chances of a candidate who promised to restore dignity to the White House. The same could happen in 2020.
Advocates of impeachment say the inquiry, whether an official “proceeding” or not, might damage Trump’s approval rating to such an extent that he will draw forth a significant primary challenger, a third-party candidacy, or both. Nor is political tumult and uncertainty helpful for a global economy roiled by trade war and lack of investment. Recession would make Trump’s downfall even more likely.
If impeachment comes to a vote in the House, Democrats representing Trump districts will be risking their political futures. Pelosi seems willing to take that risk. She knows this knife cuts both ways.
Mitch McConnell says that if the House votes to impeach, the Senate will hold a trial. It won’t just be Democrats Doug Jones (who is in cycle) and Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, and Kyrsten Sinema (who are not) in awkward positions. So will Republicans Susan Collins, Martha McSally, Cory Gardner, and Thom Tillis, all up for reelection. Democratic victory in the Senate is critical for progressives. McConnell is Horatius standing between Elizabeth Warren and structural reform of the Senate, the judiciary, and the U.S. economy.
Pelosi has fixed impeachment on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky for three reasons. The scandal fits on a television chyron: “Trump pressured Ukraine for dirt on Biden.” The process can be run through her ally Adam Schiff’s Intelligence Committee rather than through the obstreperous Jerry Nadler’s Judiciary. And the national security connection provides cover for the seven moderate freshmen with backgrounds in defense and intelligence agencies.
What makes Ukraine different from the Russia investigation is the simplicity of the alleged wrongdoing. Everyone can read the transcript of the Trump-Zelensky phone call and decide whether its contents warrant impeachment and removal from office in an election year. The Democrats need to move quickly, however, and maintain focus. Otherwise they risk losing the plot.
Speed is essential if Ukraine is to avoid the fate of other supposedly Trump-destroying scandals that collapsed from either a dearth of outrage or internal contradictions. Stormy, Avenatti, Omarosa, Scaramucci, Cohen have all gone the way of the dodo. The Russia investigation was too confusing, its results too murky, its special counsel too confused to end or cause lasting damage to Trump.
For Ukraine to be different, the Democrats must uncover evidence that will convince independents and some Republicans the president abused his office. That hasn’t happened yet. Already there are signs of overreach: the attempt to rope in William Barr and Mike Pompeo, tenuous arguments that the Zelensky call somehow broke the law, and calls for canceling Rudy Giuliani’s media appearances and for shutting down the president’s Twitter feed. Pelosi is moving quickly under the assumption that the longer the process takes, the more opportunities Trump will have to wriggle out of this vise, and the more Democrats will become distracted and dissolute.
“How can I lose?” asked Paul Newman’s character Fast Eddie in The Hustler. Pelosi might ask the same question as she enters her own high-stakes tournament. Eddie thought he had a pretty good bank shot, too.
A close look at the 2018 midterm results shows why he is so weak.
Now that a new Congress has taken office, the vote count from the 2018 midterms is all but final. It shows that Democrats won the national popular vote in the House races by almost nine percentage points. That margin is smashing — larger, by comparison, than in any presidential race since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election landslide.
.. Without a significant improvement in Trump’s standing, he would be a big underdog in 2020. Remember, presidential elections have higher turnout than midterms, and the larger electorate helps Democrats. At least 10 million more people — and maybe many more — are likely to vote in the next presidential election than voted in the 2018 midterms. Those extra votes, many from younger or nonwhite Americans, would make Trump’s re-election all the more difficult.
It’s not just Trump, either. If his approval rating doesn’t rise over the next two years,multiple Senate Republicans will be in trouble. I’ve long assumed that Susan Collins of Maine could win re-election for as long as she wanted. But she may not be able to do so if Trump loses Maine by 15 percentage points — which was the combined Republican deficit in Maine’s two midterm congressional races.
Then there is Cory Gardner of Colorado (where Republicans lost the 2018 popular vote deficit by more than 10 percentage points), Joni Ernst of Iowa (where the Republican deficit was four points) and Martha McSally of Arizona (where it was two points).
If Trump’s popularity were to drop at all, another batch of senators — from North Carolina, Texas and Georgia, three states where Republicans only narrowly won the 2018 popular vote — would become more endangered. Even Kansas elected a Democratic governor last year, and it will have an open Senate seat in 2020. On Friday, Pat Roberts, the Republican incumbent, announced he would not run again.
.. I know that many people, from across the ideological spectrum, believe that Trump’s standing with Republicans remains secure.
I think he is more vulnerable than many people realize.
First, there are the political risks that his current standing creates for other Republicans. It’s true that his approval rating has been notably stable, around 40 percent. It’s also notably weak. Thus the Republican whupping in the midterms.
Third, Republican support for Trump may remain broad, but it’s shallow. Trump has already faced far more intra-party criticism than most presidents. Since the midterms, it seems to be growing. Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, resigned and criticized Trump while doing so. Mitt Romney entered the Senate by once again turning against Trump. Collins and Gardner have started grumbling about the shutdown.
As Republicans begin looking nervously to 2020, their willingness to break with Trump may increase. For some of them, their political survival may depend on breaking with him. If that happens, it’s quite possible that his approval rating will begin to drift below 40 percent — and the bad news will then feed on itself.
No, none of this is guaranteed. Democrats could overreach, by quickly impeaching Trump and thereby uniting Republicans. Or Trump could end up navigating the next few months surprisingly well. But that’s not the mostly likely scenario.
The normal rules of politics really do apply to Trump. He won a shocking victory in 2016, and his opponents have lacked confidence ever since. They should no longer lack it.
Donald Trump still has great power as the president of the United States. But as presidents go, he is very weak. His opponents — Democrats, independents and Republicans who understand the damage he is doing to the country — should be feeling energized.