Everyone knows that how the Senate’s impeachment trial plays out will have an effect on President Donald Trump’s reelection bid this November — and, maybe, on who Democrats nominate to take him on.
What’s less known, or at least covered, are the ways in which the ongoing impeachment trial could dramatically effect Democrats’ effort to retake the Senate majority this fall.
First, the numbers. Republicans have a 53 to 47-seat edge over Democrats at the moment. (Technically, Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont are independents but both caucus with Democrats.) Which means that Democrats need to net three seats to win the majority if they also win the White House and four seats if their side comes up short in the presidential election again. (The vice president breaks ties in the Senate, giving whichever party controls the White House effective control over a 50-50 Senate.)
In the 2020 election, Republicans have to defend 23 seats, compared to just 12 for Democrats. (The 2014 election cycle was a very good one for Republicans.)
That discrepancy in seats led to some early optimism for Democrats, who believe that a credible path exists for them to seize back the majority they lost in the 2014 election. And as the election cycle has matured, that initial assessment has proven generally correct — with most nonpartisan political handicappers agreeing that the Senate is in play.
Although there are only two GOP senators running in states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 — Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine — there are a number of other Republicans running for reelection in states that were either closely contested in 2016 or that polling suggests have soured on Trump.
That group includes:
* Arizona’s Martha McSally (Trump won by 3 points in 2016)
* North Carolina’s Thom Tillis (Trump +2)
* Iowa’s Joni Ernst (Trump +9)
* Georgia’s David Perdue (Trump +5)
* Georgia’s Kelly Loeffler (Trump +5)
Add just those seats up — not to mention the problematic open Senate seat in Kansas — and you get more than enough seats for Democrats to retake the majority. (Democrats currently have a single seat in real jeopardy: Alabama’s Doug Jones.)
This isn’t to say that any of these GOP senators are going to lose because of a single vote in the impeachment trial — whether on calling witnesses (or not) or removing Trump from office. They almost certainly won’t.
But these are also not your average Senate votes. For one, every single “yea” and “nay” will be carried live on cable TV, and then subsequently analyzed by pundits and commentators. Second, this is history we’re witnessing. This is only the third Senate impeachment trial in American history. So what happens in these coming weeks — no matter what it is — will be in the history books. And finally, the way impeachment has played out to date in Congress suggests that every single one of these forthcoming Senate votes will be regarded by Trump and his detractors as core tests of party allegiance.
More bluntly: Are you with Trump or are you against him?
That’s an easy vote for, say, Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who is up for reelection in Trump-loving Nebraska. Or for Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in the blue state of Oregon. But for every senator I mentioned above, taking votes that will signal to voters which side of the Trump divide they sit is much, much more problematic.
If you are, say, Collins, who has already made one hugely controversial party vote — in favor of Brett Kavanaugh to be a Supreme Court justice — how do you navigate that dynamic? If you are ultimately going to vote against the removal of Trump, then do you have to find a way to vote to allow witnesses? And would voting for witnesses be enough to cancel out your vote not to remove Trump in the eyes of Maine voters?
Each of the senators named above have some similar version of just that challenge and calculation. Support Trump entirely and run the risk of being labeled a rubber stamp for a President who may well be under 50% approval in your state. Side too often with Democrats and run the risk of not only alienating the conservative base in your state but arousing the ire — and itchy Twitter finger — of this President.
The scariest thing of all for these GOP senators? There’s no blueprint or road map on how to do any of this. They are flying blind, with their political careers potentially on the line.