With an impeachment storm gathering, Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina is standing firmly by President Trump. Sen. Susan Collins is keeping a studied silence. Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona and Cory Gardner of Colorado have mostly laid low while nurturing fundraising ties with the White House.
The House impeachment inquiry has dropped a huge boulder in the middle of the 2020 political landscape, sending Republicans up for election in swing states scrambling to find a safe distance.
The calculation is especially tricky for Tillis, Collins, McSally and Gardner, who face tough 2020 reelection fights in competitive states. To hold their seats, they must please two very different constituencies — Trump loyalists and swing voters. Impeachment may greatly complicate that mission.
Some Democrats have worried that a political backlash to the impeachment drive could cost them control of the House. But the unpredictable issue could also pose a threat to the Republican majority in the Senate.
“No one wants to be talking about this,” said Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the GOP’s Senate campaign arm. “It’s a headache. But call me skeptical that Democrats are going to maximize the opportunity.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said that under Senate rules he would have “no choice” but to bring impeachment articles to the Senate floor if they are approved by the House. That means Senate Republicans will have to cast a vote on whether Trump’s conduct passes muster.
“Impeachment has the potential to put the squeeze on vulnerable Republicans; it could be a high-profile vote in support of or against the president,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor of the nonpartisan Inside Elections newsletter. “Most Republicans worry more about losing Trump’s support than they do about carving out an independent image.”
The impeachment debate provides the latest illustration of just how much Trump has tightened his grip on the Republican Party. With details emerging daily about Trump’s efforts to recruit foreign leaders for his domestic political purposes, some Republicans are echoing White House talking points in his defense, saying he did nothing improper; others are keeping mum. Precious few are daring to criticize his behavior.
Those who do risk searing blowback from Trump and his supporters, as GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah received — in the form of a belittling Trump tweet — after he said the president’s behavior was troubling.
That’s why it is unlikely that enough Republicans would turn on the president to oust him. With Democrats and their two independent allies holding 47 Senate seats, at least 20 GOP defections would be needed for the two-thirds vote to convict Trump.
Each of the four Republican swing-state senators has taken a different approach so far.
All have been targeted by anti-Trump activists. Need to Impeach, an anti-Trump group funded by Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, recently announced a $3-million campaign targeting vulnerable Republican senators, including television ads that began Thursday. Members of Indivisible, a progressive grass-roots group, plan impeachment-related demonstrations during the current Senate recess, including one outside McSally’s Phoenix office on Tuesday.
“Our goal will be to make this vote as painful and consequential as possible for Senate Republicans,” said Meagan Hatcher-Mays, Indivisible’s director of democracy policy.
Jesse Hunt, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said it was a “total fiction” that impeachment would be a winning issue for Democrats in battleground states. “Independent voters are completely turned off by these antics,” he said.
Still, some GOP strategists say swing-state Republicans might find safe political ground by voicing disapproval of Trump’s behavior while arguing it does not merit removing him from office.
That was the kind of argument Collins made in 1999 when she was one of the few Republicans who voted to acquit President Clinton of impeachment charges arising from his denial, under oath, of an affair with a White House intern. Collins argued that his behavior was “contemptible or utterly unworthy of the great office he holds,” but not grounds for removal from office.
For now, Collins is declining to comment on the specifics of the impeachment inquiry, saying she must remain neutral because she will be serving as a juror if a Senate impeachment trial occurs.
She has, however, risen to the defense of the whistleblower who raised alarms about Trump’s phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Taking issue with Trump for calling the whistleblower a spy and a traitor, Collins told reporters, “Whistleblowers have been essential in bringing to the public’s attention wrongdoings, fraud, waste, abuse, law-breaking, and I very much disagree with the president’s mischaracterization.”
Collins is well-established in Maine, which she has represented in the Senate for 20 years, carving a reputation for being a moderate. But she has been girding for the toughest reelection fight of her career because of political fallout from her support last year for Brett M. Kavanaugh, Trump’s Supreme Court nominee.
Gardner has not directly addressed questions about whether Trump acted appropriately when he asked the Ukrainian president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. He did issue a statement denouncing the House speaker.
“Nancy Pelosi’s impeachment inquiry to appease the far-left isn’t something the majority of Americans support and will sharply divide the country,” Gardner said.
And he’s carefully kept ties with the White House, especially in raising money. He recently was advertised as a “special guest” at a Trump 2020 campaign retreat in New York from Friday to Sunday, along with the president’s son Donald Trump Jr.
Colorado went for Hillary Clinton by almost 5 percentage points in 2016. Trump is especially unpopular, with just 39% of Coloradans approving of the job Trump is doing.
“It’s a very tough decision, and no matter which way you go it’s going to alienate a portion of the electorate,” said Rob Witwer, a former Colorado state legislator who quit the GOP in early 2019. But he said the key question is the reaction of independent voters like himself. Gardner’s best course is to appeal to those who are weary of partisan bickering, he said.
McSally is considered vulnerable because, while Trump won Arizona in 2016 by 3.6 percentage points, she lost her Senate bid to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018. McSally was later appointed to the state’s other Senate seat, which had been vacated by the death of GOP Sen. John McCain.
Reaching for a balance between hugging Trump and keeping him at a distance, McSally has dismissed the significance of the impeachment inquiry, calling it a political loser for Democrats.
“Literally, they’re on a path to reelect the president, keep the Senate majority and flip the House,” McSally said in an interview with Politico. “It’s a total distraction. People can make their voices heard at the ballot box, right?”
Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Arizona this week for a McSally fundraiser, and she met him at the airport. Democrats derided the event as an effort to show loyalty to the Trump administration while finessing Trump’s unpopularity in Arizona.
“We’re getting the bat boy instead of the general manager,” Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) gibed to reporters.
Of the four, Tillis has been the most unequivocal in his defense of Trump. Not only is he running in the most Trump-friendly state of the four, he is facing a two-front political battle — against a Republican primary opponent who says he is not loyal enough to Trump, and against Democratic candidates who say he is a Trump puppet.
Tillis took heat from Trump loyalists last spring after he wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post objecting to Trump’s proposal to declare a national emergency in order to finance his border wall with money diverted from the Pentagon — a sensitive subject in North Carolina, which has a heavy military presence. Tillis later was persuaded by the White House to change his mind and vote to uphold the emergency order.
That opened him to accusations of flip-flopping — not just by Democrats but by a primary challenger who is arguing that Tillis is not a trustworthy conservative. Tillis has even been greeted with some boos when he has appeared at rallies with Trump.
Tillis is already airing his first ad, featuring Trump praising him as a “warrior.”
That strategy may help him beat back a primary challenge, but could cost him support in the state’s growing suburbs, where the GOP has been losing ground.
Tillis’ situation crystallizes the dilemma that members of both parties will likely face on impeachment.
“It does force both blue-state Republicans and red-state Democrats to make a calculation to either stick with their base or try to gamble and win over some independents,” said a Republican strategist who works on Senate races. “That is a very risky choice.”