Five senators to watch on impeachment

Why We Wrote This

Currently, the Senate seems unlikely to muster the two-thirds majority needed to remove President Trump from office. But two groups of Republicans are worth watching to see how sentiment stands.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
The impeachment saga presents a difficult tightrope walk for GOP senators who are facing tough reelection races, including Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado.

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The House of Representatives is ringing with loud debate about impeachment this week. But in the Senate? It’s mostly silence.

That’s because most senators see little benefit in saying anything on the explosive subject.

“I’m a potential juror,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee, avoiding further comment as he hopped into an elevator on Wednesday.

If – when – impeachment passes the House, senators will indeed be trial jurors. But currently it appears unlikely enough Republicans would defect to produce the two-thirds majority needed to remove President Donald Trump from office.

Still, two groups of GOP senators are worth watching to see how the tides are running, say experts.

The first group consists of lawmakers who have announced plans to leave office. They may have legacies in mind. These include Senator Alexander, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming.

The second group is made up of senators from swing states who face tough reelections. Among them are Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah are wild cards. Senator Murkowski is known for independence. Senator Romney’s state is not particularly pro-Trump.

Senator Romney plans “to keep a completely open mind” regarding impeachment, he says.

The U.S. House of Representatives was alive with impeachment activity Thursday morning. Unusually, the chamber floor was half-full even before voting began on a resolution authorizing public hearings and the release of witness testimony. Members spoke with passion. The gallery was packed.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Capitol, in the Senate, fiercely protective of its historic reputation as the greatest deliberative body in the world, there was ... silence.

Senators were mostly silent about impeachment, in any case. That’s been true for weeks, especially for members of the Republican majority. They have little incentive to be pinned down on the subject, especially prior to public House action and final votes. As a defense against inquiring reporters, they employ stock phrases that mean “no comment.”

“I’m a potential juror,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., on Wednesday, just before he hopped into an elevator. “We’re just going to have to see if it comes to trial,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, as she stepped into a private Senate room.

But the subject of impeachment is quite probably coming to all senators of both parties, whether they look forward to it or not. The developments in the House suggest the chamber is hurtling toward an impeachment vote. The action would then shift to the Republican-led Senate, which ultimately gets to decide whether or not to remove the president from office.

It’s very unlikely that enough Republicans will defect to produce the two-thirds majority needed to remove President Donald Trump from office. But if initially there were some rumblings that the Senate would force a quick vote to get impeachment out of the way, some Republicans now dismiss that possibility.

Indeed, there’s a chance that Republicans won’t want their impeachment trial to wrap up quickly. Unlike the House effort, a Senate trial would be GOP-controlled. It might allow them to reframe the narrative in the president’s favor just as the 2020 election kicks into gear.

“I haven’t heard anyone espousing a quick dismissal,” Sen. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.V., told reporters this week. “I certainly think we need to hear it out from the House. This is a serious thing.”

Still, two key groups in the GOP caucus are worth watching as the impeachment saga moves to the Senate, political observers say. The first is made up of veteran senators who’ve announced their retirement in 2020. These lawmakers may be looking at how their achievements and decisions over the next year or so might shape the future of the Senate as an institution – and their place in history.

This group includes Senator Alexander of Tennessee, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina (whose current term lasts until 2022 but who announced that 2016 would be the last time he’d run for elective office), Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, and Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas.

The second group consists of GOP senators who are facing close reelection races and have to navigate between pleasing President Trump’s reliable base of voters and the moderates and independents they may need to secure their seats.

These include: Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, Senator Ernst of Iowa, Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona, and Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina.

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah belongs to neither category, but has become President Trump’s most vocal Republican critic in the chamber. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has also regularly taken positions independent of the party line.

Here’s a look at some of these senators, their histories, and the forces that drive them as Congress moves toward a historic decision that could shape American politics for years to come.

Lamar Alexander

Senator Alexander’s decision to retire in 2020 after nearly two decades in the Senate was met with a slew of stories lamenting the loss of yet another of Capitol Hill’s “old guard” – lawmakers with reputations for reaching across the aisle. 

An institutionalist who started his career during the Watergate years under Senator Howard Baker, a fellow Tennessee Republican, he’s one of the few senators who has a relationship with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Both paid him tribute on the Senate floor when he announced his pending retirement. As chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he has worked with ranking member Patty Murray, D-Wash., on legislation meant to lower the cost of health care. 

Susan Walsh/AP
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, shown here in a Sept. 24, 2019 photo, showed his support for the president by joining a small group of Republican senators at a lunch last Thursday at the Oval Office.

Mr. Alexander also hasn’t balked at criticizing the president. He denounced Mr. Trump’s recent use of the term “lynching” to describe impeachment, as well as the decision to pull troops out of Syria. He was also one of only 11 Republicans to support a resolution rebuffing Mr. Trump for using the National Emergency Act to secure funds for his border wall without congressional approval. 

That said, FiveThirtyEight’s tracker finds Mr. Alexander votes in line with Mr. Trump about 90% of the time. He showed his support for the president by joining a small group of Republican senators at a lunch last Thursday at the Oval Office. The next day, Mr. Alexander signed on to a resolution, introduced by the majority leader, Sen. McConnell, and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, condemning the House inquiry. 

Mr. Alexander’s position on impeachment thus far has been measured.

“I’m a potential juror, so I’m going to wait until I hear all the arguments and all the evidence before I have anything to say about it,” he says.

Richard Burr

These days, Senator Burr is best known as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which for two-and-a-half years has been investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. He and his Democratic vice chair, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, have been lauded for their quiet, bipartisan efforts, which recently involved the release of the second of five reports drawn from testimonies from more than 200 witnesses – including the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump, Jr. 

“We’ve got a very productive working relationship,” Senator Warner says. “We don’t always agree, but when we disagree we usually try to work it out in private.” 

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, shown here in a Jan. 29, 2019 photo, is best known as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which for two-and-a-half years has been investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 elections.

That wasn’t always the case. Back in 2017, Democrats in the committee threatened a boycott after Senator Burr – who had served as the Trump campaign’s national security adviser – announced that the panel wouldn’t look into allegations of collusion between Mr. Trump and Moscow. When reports surfaced that Mr. Burr, at the behest of the White House, had called reporters to challenge stories about contact between Trump campaign members and Russian operatives, Mr. Warner expressed “grave concerns.”

Despite the rocky start, the committee marched forward with its investigation. The committee is currently in negotiations about getting the whistleblower – who first revealed concerns about Mr. Trump’s relationship with Ukraine – to testify in closed session, even as the House has hurtled forward with its impeachment probe.

So far, Mr. Burr has said he won’t comment on the House’s inquiry until he knows more. Some say approaching retirement provides political cushion for lawmakers; Mr. Burr has said he won’t run again in 2022.

“When you’re not on the ballot and your career’s coming to an end, you make decisions that show you don’t need to continue to be part of the circus,” says Bill Sweeney, professor of government at American University.

Susan Collins

A moderate from Maine, Senator Collins has been smarting ever since she voted to confirm Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court a year ago. Since Senator Collins cast her decisive vote, her approval rating has plummeted and a Democratic challenger has raised millions in a bid to unseat the four-term senator in next year’s election.

Some political observers say Ms. Collins’ vote on impeachment could similarly spell disaster for her reelection chances, in either direction. Thus far, she has tried to walk a fine line. She wouldn’t sign the Senate resolution condemning House Democrats’ “closed-door” impeachment proceedings, but she’s also stayed mum when reporters have asked how she would vote in a potential Senate trial. 

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, shown here in a Sept. 19, 2019 photo, could be spurned by voters, regardless of which side of an impeachment decision she falls.

Josh Tardy, a top GOP operative in Maine, says her refusal to stake a position isn’t a product of a tough reelection campaign looming next year, but rather her character.

“You look at how she ultimately withheld judgment until late in the Kavanaugh confirmation process,” says Mr. Tardy, who co-chaired Ms. Collins’ 2014 reelection campaign. “The fact of the matter is that you can’t just determine where Susan Collins is going to vote based on what Washington GOP leadership says the party line is.”

In the first two years of Mr. Trump’s presidency, Ms. Collins voted with him 77% of the time. This year, however, that number has dropped to 33%. But whether she breaks with Mr. Trump ultimately doesn’t matter, says Mr. Tardy.

“I think single-issue folks will look at any particular vote – Kavanaugh, a potential impeachment vote – as just reaffirming why they’re voting for Susan Collins or voting against her, but I don’t think it’s going to [determine] the outcome at all. I think you’re going to see Susan Collins doing particularly well with unenrolled voters, and she’s performed very well with her Republican base,” he says.

Cory Gardner

Senator Gardner has struggled to address impeachment, and no wonder: He’s a Republican running for his first reelection in a state that went to Hillary Clinton in 2016, and where Mr. Trump’s approval rating has been on a steady decline since he took office. Mr. Gardner’s own poll numbers haven’t been doing so great. Democrats have made his seat their top Senate target in 2020, and he’s one of four Republican senators that are the subject of new attack ads by the Democratic group Need to Impeach.

Like other vulnerable incumbents, his choice is stark: To side with the president to secure the support of the Republican base, even if evidence mounts against him? Or to break with Mr. Trump and risk losing that base in order to win over independents and moderates, who are increasingly supportive of impeachment?

In that kind of environment, “There’s very little to be gained politically by taking a firm position now,” says Alex Conant, a Republican operative who worked on Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Indeed, Mr. Gardner has refused to comment on impeachment before, as he puts it, all the facts are in. He’s also repeatedly declined to say whether or not he thought it was appropriate to ask a foreign government to investigate a political rival, even walking away from an interview to avoid the question earlier this month.

Still, he’s been a vocal critic of the House investigation, calling it a partisan exercise, and he quickly signed on to the resolution attacking the inquiry.  

Mitt Romney

Senator Romney has disapproved of Mr. Trump since 2016, when he warned his party against nominating “The Donald.” When the news broke about the now-famous July 25 call, Mr. Romney described Mr. Trump’s interaction with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as “deeply troubling.” Then he rebuked Mr. Trump for publicly asking Ukraine and China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s family, which led the president to take to Twitter to call him “pompous” and “a fool.” 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, shown here in an Oct. 30, 2019 photo, has become President Donald Trump’s most vocal Republican critic in the chamber.

Now Senator Romney is widely viewed as Mr. Trump’s strongest Republican critic in the Senate. His state is primarily what lets him do that: Utah may be one of the reddest states in the nation, but Utah Republicans are much less enamored of the president than their GOP counterparts in most other states. Fifty-five percent of Utah voters overall disapprove of the president, according to a recent Utah Political Trends survey, for instance. By comparison, in next-door Wyoming, which is also heavily Republican, Trump’s disapproval number hovers around 40 percent.

There are some signs that Utah voters aren’t thrilled with Mr. Romney’s pointed criticism of the president, either. A few polls show his favorability dropping in the state. But Mr. Romney won’t be up for reelection until 2024. He’s also said he’s not planning a second run for president, telling USA Today: “I’ve had my two strikes,” which leaves him “free emotionally to do entirely what I believe is absolutely right.” 

Senator Romney (along with Senator Collins) did not sign onto the Senate resolution condemning the House impeachment approach. He’s since declared that he plans to keep “a completely open mind” if impeachment comes to a trial. 

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