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Trump Impeachment Trial Will Test Vulnerable Incumbent Senators

December 30, 2019, 8:04 PM UTC

The Senate’s historic impeachment trial of President Donald Trump will be especially momentous for a small group of vulnerable incumbent senators whose 2020 re-election bids are central to determining control of the chamber.

Trump is all but certain to be acquitted on two articles of impeachment since the Constitution requires 67 votes to convict. But for just over half a dozen senators locked in the closest races, and a few others whose contests could tip competitive, their votes on whether to remove him from office will trigger inevitable political fallout.

Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine, two of the most at-risk Republican incumbents, are particularly boxed in. Both represent Democratic-leaning states where a vote to acquit Trump could spark a voter backlash in the fall. But a vote to convict would be bait for a GOP primary challenge that could damage or end their re-election campaigns. Democratic Senator Doug Jones, who hails from deep red Alabama, confronts the opposite dilemma.

“Impeachment is just one more giant hurdle they have to leap in their bids for re-election,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “They must be enormously frustrated by it because they have no control over what happens, how it happens, and they have a tough decision.”

In the lead up to next month’s Senate trial for Trump on charges that he abused the powers of his office and obstructed Congress, Democrats have gained some ground in their drive to overturn the GOP’s 53-47 advantage in the Senate.

They’ve recruited former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to run against Gardner, and they get shots at two GOP-held seats in Georgia with the retirement of three-term Senator Johnny Isakson. Meanwhile, in the third quarter, Democratic challengers out-raised Republican senators in states including Arizona, Michigan, Iowa and Maine.

“I’d still rather be the Republicans than the Democrats in the race for Senate control, but the targets are there for the Democrats,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball election forecast at the University of Virginia.

Democrats need a net gain of four seats to snag a Senate majority if Trump wins re-election, and three if they win the White House. The party is favored to keep House control, with Republicans needing 19 seats to take back the speaker’s gavel.

For most senators, the votes on whether to convict or acquit Trump pose little risk back home. Only 35 of the 100 Senate seats are on the ballot next year, and more than two dozen of those appear unlikely to flip.

Risk Factor

But for the vulnerable incumbents from both parties, the impeachment vote adds another potential risk factor — along with the economy, Trump’s controversies and the outcome of the Democratic nomination for president — to what is already a politically erratic election year.

Senator Todd Young of Indiana, who leads the Senate Republican fund raising arm, said while impeachment votes are important, other issues will be predominant. He said Republicans have a “very high” chance of keeping the Senate with the economy strong and with the party’s record of cutting taxes and confirming conservative federal judges.

Democrats agree that the impeachment votes are just a part of the picture. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto of New Mexico, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said issues like bringing down the cost of prescription drugs are what will most motivate voters.

“The growing enthusiasm we’re seeing across the country has moved these races in our direction,” she said.

Vulnerable Republicans

Democratic hopes start in Arizona, where GOP Senator Martha McSally is running to keep the seat she was appointed to by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. She initially criticized the House impeachment inquiry but in recent weeks has been saying little about it, instead emphasizing home-state issues like boosting Arizona’s water supply.

Her Democratic rival, gun-control activist and former astronaut Mark Kelly, has vastly out-raised her, raking in $13.9 million by the end of the third quarter, with $9.5 million cash on hand, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. McSally has raised just $8.4 million and had $5.7 million left to spend.

In Maine, Collins is facing her toughest race since the independent-minded senator first came to the chamber in 1996. She won her last election in 2014 with 67% of the vote. But Democrats see her 2018 vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court and a possible vote to acquit Trump as significant ammunition against her. Collins refuses to say what she might do on impeachment, citing her role as a juror, but Trump this week tweeted his endorsement for her re-election.

Democrat Sara Gideon, Maine’s state House speaker, is Collins’ leading challenger and has been endorsed by the national party. Collins raised $8.6 million by the end of the third quarter and had $7.1 million left to spend. Gideon out-raised Collins in the third quarter and so far has raked in $4.2 million this cycle, with $2.8 million cash on hand.

Colorado Contest

Meanwhile, Gardner can’t afford missteps after Hickenlooper dropped out of the Democratic presidential contest and entered the Colorado Senate race. Hillary Clinton carried Colorado in 2016, 48% to Donald Trump’s 43%. Hickenlooper is a popular ex-governor, though progressive groups are backing former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff.

”I think Cory Gardner is the most vulnerable Republican incumbent,” Kondik said. “I don’t see Trump winning Colorado, and Hickenlooper is a strong challenger.”

Gardner has deflected questions about how he’ll vote in the trial and has taken heat for refusing to say whether Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate Democrat Joe Biden was wrong.

Defending Trump

In North Carolina, Republican Senator Thom Tillis has been defending Trump and is highly critical of the House impeachment inquiry. That appears to have helped him ward off a tough primary and it remains to be seen whether it becomes a real issue in the general election.

Tillis’ top Democratic challenger, former state Senator Cal Cunningham, told a North Carolina TV station this month that Tillis is clearly engaging in a “rush to judgment” on impeachment and isn’t keeping an open mind.

In Georgia, both GOP Senator David Perdue and businesswoman Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to replace Isakson, are tying themselves closely to Trump. Loeffler has vowed to back Trump’s agenda and said the impeachment inquiry is “a distraction and a sideshow” and an effort by Democrats to overturn the 2016 election.

The Democrats vying to take on Perdue include Jon Ossoff, who lost a House special election in Georgia in 2017, and former Columbus, Georgia, Mayor Teresa Tomlinson. Matt Lieberman, the son of former vice president and Senator Joe Lieberman, is running to replace Loeffler.

Republican strength in Georgia’s suburbs is waning, Duffy notes, suggesting potential challenges for the Republicans.

“The presidential race will matter very much there,” said Kondik.

Swing State

In Iowa, Democrats have recruited Theresa Greenfield, the president of a real estate and development company, to challenge GOP Senator Joni Ernst. Ernst dismissed the House impeachment as a “political exercise” and brushed aside questions about Trump’s conduct.

Trump won Iowa in 2016 by 9 points, and Ernst’s performance is likely to be closely tied to how Trump fares in next fall’s general election, which is an open question in what has been swing state, analysts said.

Senator Gary Peters of Michigan is one of just two Democrats facing any real risk in 2020, and he’s said little about how he might vote in the trial.

Peters will face Republican John James, an Iraq War veteran and businessman who lost to Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow in 2018. Although Trump narrowly won the state in 2016, Democrats were resurgent two years later, winning statewide races for governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

In Alabama, Jones won a 2017 special election to serve out the remaining Senate term of then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, seizing the seat in a surprise win after Republican nominee Roy Moore was accused of sexual assault and misconduct. Several Republicans are in the race, including Sessions, Representative Bradley Byrne, and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville. Moore, who also is running, isn’t seen as a factor.

Jones, who declines to say how he’ll vote in the impeachment trial, has worked to craft a reputation as a pragmatist who can work with Republicans. But Trump remains popular in the state.

Jones badly needs to make sure voters aren’t broken into partisan camps, analysts said, and a vote to convict Trump would hurt him.

“If Jones wants to have any chance, he has to denationalize the race, and impeachment nationalizes it,” Kondik said.

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