Democrats seem bewildered by Republicans’ inability to see President Trump as deserving impeachment. But it’s not all that mysterious.
Republicans understandably don’t want to commit political suicide, either for themselves or for their party. Nearly all political observers acknowledge that a Republican who votes for impeachment would be inviting a primary challenge from a candidate who will defend Trump 100%. The latest polls show 94% of Republicans support the president and are against impeachment. It is also likely that Trump would campaign for any challenger who takes on a Republican incumbent voting for impeachment.
Moreover, those who break with the party on Trump’s impeachment could have a tougher time in the general election, even if they win in the primary. This is especially true in competitive races, such as those of Susan Collins in Maine or Cory Gardner in Colorado. In districts that trend purple, every vote counts, and if turnout by either party is significantly depressed, the other party is likely to triumph.
It’s hard to imagine that Republicans loyal to Trump will be as motivated to turn out on election day to cast a vote for a Republican senator or House member who voted for impeachment. And Democrats are unlikely to vote Republican in 2020, even to reward a Republican who crossed party lines on impeachment. Democrats are desperate to keep the House and take back the Senate. Of course, independents are the wild card, but they aren’t really all that independent, tending to vote consistently for one party or the other when they bother to vote for down-ballot candidates. Republican senators in tough races, like Collins or Gardner, are in trouble no matter what they do, but they can’t afford to alienate their Republican base.
Some Democrats have expressed hope that retiring Republicans, such as Rep. Will Hurd of Texas or Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, might break with their party to support impeachment. But that, too, is unlikely. They may not be seeking office again, but they do want to keep their options open for future work — including in a Republican presidential administration — and being seen as disloyal to the party wouldn’t be helpful.
Moreover, no politician wants to be remembered as someone who harmed his or her party, and the removal of a sitting Republican president would almost certainly be a blow to the GOP. In the 1974 midterm election, not long after Richard Nixon was forced to resign, Republicans lost 48 seats in the House and three in the U.S. Senate. This was after many Republicans in the House and Senate made it clear they no longer could support the president and would cross party lines to oust him.
There are almost certainly Republicans who secretly believe Trump’s actions are impeachable and wouldn’t mind if he is narrowly defeated next November — as long as Republicans keep the Senate, so the new Democratic president won’t be able to accomplish much of his or her agenda. After all, they reason, it would mean only one more year of having to put up with this president, and even with a narrow Democratic presidential victory, the party could stay strong and rebuild itself.
Trump may ultimately be judged harshly by history. But for now, it makes political sense for Republicans to stay quiet and not vote for impeachment or conviction.
Robert Stern is former president of the L.A.-based Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit organization that made recommendations on how to improve the governmental process. He now teaches at the Osher Lifelong Leaning Institute at UCLA and the Emeritus program at Santa Monica College.