Republican Senators Against Trump’s Impeachment Aren’t Likely to Face Losses at the Polls. Here’s Why
The belief that President Donald Trump has committed violations of his office worthy of impeachment is held by the majority of both House representatives and American voters. In the Senate, however, party rules may reign.
“There is a sense within the Republican Party that they are very much tied to the president’s fortunes. That they can’t necessarily take on the president directly without risking their own seats,” said David Daley, senior fellow for FairVote, a non-partisan nonprofit focused on electoral reforms.
A Fox News poll released earlier this month found 51% of registered voters believe Trump should be impeached and removed from office. Of course, support for the inquiry is divided along party lines: a Washington Post-Schar School poll found 8 in 10 Democrats endorse the investigation, compared to 3 in 10 Republicans.
And while nearly 97% of House Democrats support Trump’s impeachment—according to the New York Times‘ latest count—not a single Republican representative has joined them.
Those who have publicly come out against the president often don’t fair well. Former Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, for example, was forced into retirement. In a Washington Post op-ed, he said that while he had hoped to seek reelection and serve as a check to the president within the party, “this was not what Republican primary voters in my state were looking for.”
“Whatever reservations they might have had when they voted for Donald Trump,” wrote Flake, “one year into his presidency they wanted a senator who was all in.”
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) was the only Republican member of Congress to openly come out in support of an impeachment inquiry following the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, and while he has not lost his seat, he’s decided to leave the party in favor of independence, saying partisan politics have begun to “divide and dehumanize us.”
These partisan politics are still very much alive, however. As CEO of GOP consulting firm Majority Strategies Brett Buerck said, “the Pelosi impeachment scheme has awoken Republicans, enraging them in many cases.”
“When the story of 2020 is eventually written, I’m confident we’ll owe a debt of gratitude to House Democrats,” he told Fortune. “Their behavior is likely to have a dramatically positive impact on our turnout operations.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said his chamber “has no choice” but to take up the case if the House passes articles of impeachment. How long the case may last, however, is another question. Once the charges pass to the Senate, Republicans could move to immediately dismiss the trial, as a Democrat attempted to do in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. McConnell’s reelection campaign is already using the promise of a short impeachment as a rallying cry.
Not all members of Congress have fully leaned into the Trump defense team, however. Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, for example, said in a statement earlier this month, “By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”
But in regard to impeachment, Romney said those in the Senate “are being pretty careful at this point not to prejudge, but to wait until the House does its work.”
“The Republican Party is essentially a national brand,” Daley told Fortune. “Something that is bad for the president is bad for the Republican Party as a brand, so you end up seeing all of these members [of Congress] sticking with him and they probably feel as if in many ways they don’t have much of a choice. Indeed, the way that the system is set up they’re pretty much incentivized to continue supporting the president.”
In the current system, candidates are usually chosen through a winner-take-all election. This means legislators are encouraged to represent a strong base that will reelect them at the polls, leaving the minorities in their district behind. “You end up with folks representing the ideological extremes in largely non-competitive elections,” said Daley.
In truth, not every Republican constituent feels Trump’s behavior is constitutional. One woman confronted GOP Sen. Joni Ernst at an Iowa town hall earlier this month, asking “Where is the line?”
“When are you guys going to say ‘enough’?” asked Iowa resident Amy Haskins. “You didn’t pledge an oath to the president. You pledged it to our country. You pledged it to our constitution.”
On the whole, however, Republicans side with party leadership. The latest Gallup poll on Trump’s job approval—conducted after the House launched their impeachment inquiry—show 87% of GOP voters are behind the president. This means Republican members of Congress are likely to stick behind Trump, regardless of what the independents or the other 13% of Republicans believe.
An alternative system that could give a voice to these minorities would be ranked choice voting. With ranked choice voting, said Daley, “you always end up with the person that the most people can actually get behind.”
“If we moved to a system that was more proportional, like every other modern democracy essentially in the world, the members [of Congress] would have more freedom to vote their conscience without feeling like they were tied to a political brand,” said Daley, “and voters would have more ability to cast a vote that was meaningful in a district that was competitive.”
Ranked choice voting is gaining traction around the U.S., particularly at the local level. Maine is the only state to implement the system state-wide, but according to FairVote, cities in 25 other states use ranked choice voting in at least one type of election.
For now, however, most members of Congress are bound to the winner-takes-all system, meaning they’re likely to stand behind the president and represent the 87% of Republicans who support him.
Those in swing states may reconsider, but only 6% of Republicans support Trump’s removal from office according to a new Gallup poll (compared to 89% of Democrats and 55% of Independents). Barring a drastic change in public opinion, a Senate acquittal of Trump would result in little consequences for Republicans in majority red districts.
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