The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How impeachment could flip the Senate

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

Rahm Emanuel is a former mayor of Chicago, Democratic congressman from Illinois and White House chief of staff.

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) initiated an impeachment inquiry into President Trump several months ago, many worried that she was repeating the mistakes Republicans made during their monomaniacal pursuit of President Bill Clinton two decades ago. At that time, the GOP’s fever dream proved an electoral disaster for House Republicans. In November 1998, Democrats did so well that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was compelled to resign just days after the midterm elections.

That’s not going to happen again. Last year’s Democratic victories in Kentucky and Louisiana illustrated that pursuing Trump isn’t the political kryptonite for Democrats that persecuting Clinton was for Republicans. That’s probably because even many of Trump’s supporters presume he is guilty of breaking the law. It is rare for an incumbent’s popularity to be in the low to mid-40s this close to reelection. It suggests that the country has grown numb to his Twitter tirades — and that character still matters.

Some will argue that the president is an outlier — that he’s immune to the laws of politics. Whether that proves to be right, there’s one arena in which impeachment is likely to have an outsize impact: in the battle for control of Congress. The House looks to stay in Democratic hands: Already, fear of a Trumplash partly explains why 26 House Republicans have announced they are retiring or seeking another office. Meanwhile, Democrats are said even by some Republicans to be “crushing” House GOP fundraising efforts. If Republicans are too busy defending their seats to run competitively in districts already controlled by Democrats, Pelosi’s double-digit margin in the House is likely to survive.

Fifteen of the GOP senators who will try President Trump's impeachment were in Congress during the Clinton impeachment. Only one voted to acquit Bill Clinton. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: AP, Washington Post, Reuters/The Washington Post)

But if the scandal is working to preserve the Democratic tilt in the House, it could upend things in the Senate, where Republicans hold a three-seat margin. Impeachment will likely decide the fate of a handful of Senate Republicans currently in cycle. For Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Thom Tillis (N.C.), Joni Ernst (Iowa), Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Martha McSally (Ariz.), a vote to convict is unthinkable: It risks the president’s wrath and a likely primary challenge. That combination would force each senator to embrace an agenda alien to most swing voters.

Impeachment trial live updates

A vote to acquit, however, will force every senator to own Trump’s emboldened rhetoric of being exonerated. Which means they’ll have to defend Trump when the next embarrassing audio recording hits the airwaves, or when another witness surfaces to speak, or when John Bolton’s book comes out, or when internal memos about the “drug deal” come out via the Freedom of Information Act. Republican senators will become full-time exonerators.

That dilemma is now playing out in real time. Some 63 percent of voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina look unfavorably on the Senate’s decision to date to disallow witnesses and hide documents — yet all five senators mentioned earlier have, so far, voted against transparency. That may partly explain why the five Republican senators are “underwater,” meaning that more constituents view them negatively than positively. And if that snapshot bodes poorly, the trend lines are worse: In the last quarter of 2019, McSally and Collins saw 5- and 4-point drops, respectively, in their “net” approval rating — an indication that a rising share of their constituents view them in a negative light.

For years, I’ve believed that the balance of the Senate almost invariably followed the outcome of a presidential election. This coming year, by contrast, the Trump impeachment may have such inertial power that the old truism of nationalized results during presidential cycles may no longer be valid. If so, the current trial, if you can call it that, will “decouple” the battles for the White House and the world’s “greatest deliberative body.”

If, as expected, the Senate votes to acquit the president, many may cast impeachment as a strategic blunder. But that analysis may be premature. Just as they overshot the mark by impeaching Clinton two decades ago, Republicans have overcorrected today by whitewashing Trump’s clear wrongdoing — at least so far.

If Democrats nominate a candidate who projects calmness, coolness and character in contrast with Trump’s chaos, corruption and constant conflict, we are likely to emerge from the November election in much better shape than many might now anticipate. And our success will be tied explicitly to the vote these senators take giving the president a pass for behavior most Americans now view as illegal.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump lawyer Sekulow makes a strong case for hearing from Bolton

Christian Caryl: Pompeo’s lame comment on Ukraine shows the rot at the heart of Trump’s foreign policy

Marc A. Thiessen: A Bolton subpoena fight could tie up the Senate for months. That’s exactly what Democrats want.

Alexandra Petri: I’m very worried about this president. Buy my book to find out why!

Jennifer Rubin: John Bolton could be Trump’s John Dean

What’s next in the impeachment trial

The latest commentary on the Trump impeachment

Looking for more Trump impeachment coverage following the president’s acquittal?

See Dana Milbank’s Impeachment Diary: Find all the entries in our columnist’s feature.

Get the latest: See complete Opinions coverage from columnists, editorial cartoonists and the Editorial Board.

Read the most recent take from the Editorial Board: It’s not over. Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable.

The House impeachment managers weigh in in an op-ed: Trump won’t be vindicated. The Senate won’t be, either.

Stay informed: Read the latest reporting and analysis on impeachment from the Post newsroom.

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