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.