Armed with polling showing voters largely supported an expanded trial, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is trying to raise money for key challengers to Republican incumbents. “We know you’re angry,” the DSCC began its Friday missive.
But Republicans are emerging from the impeachment trial with their own level of confidence. Less than nine months from Election Day, Republicans argue that the national focus on the Senate trial helped galvanize conservative voters around GOP senators while also giving their incumbents lines of attack that they think can make inroads with independent voters.
“Every one of our people in tough races — every one of them — is in better shape today than they were before the impeachment trial started,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said at a news conference after the impeachment votes.
He questioned whether the issue would still resonate in the fall, seeing only political bleeding among Democrats.
“They initiated it. They thought this was a great idea, and it at least for the short term, it has been a colossal political mistake,” he said.
McConnell is leading a weekend-long retreat for senators and big donors to the National Republican Senatorial Committee at the Breakers Resort in Palm Beach, Fla. While the invitation boasts of golf and “Popsicles and prosecco by the pool,” the weekend is certain to focus on how the entire impeachment process impacted their current 53-47 majority.
This election cycle, Republicans have largely avoided their previous Achilles’ heel of bitter, personal, ideological primaries, with one major exception in Georgia.
There, the combination of Trump’s impeachment and Republican Johnny Isakson’s retirement last month, after 15 years in the Senate, opened a bitter feud. Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.) wanted the appointment to succeed Isakson, almost as a reward for being a staunch Trump defender on the House Judiciary Committee, but Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) appointed Kelly Loeffler (R) to fill the term and run in a November special election.
Loeffler got the full endorsement of McConnell and the NRSC, only to have Collins jump into the race. Trump made matters more confusing at Thursday’s post-acquittal celebration by showering praise on both Georgians.
“Kelly, you’re going to end up liking him a lot. Something is going to happen that’s going to be very good. I don’t know. I haven’t figured it out yet,” Trump said. “But Doug Collins, where is he? Where is Doug? You have been so great.”
Democrats have not won a Senate race in Georgia since 2000, but a bitter primary might open the door for Raphael G. Warnock, a pastor at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, who is the leading Democrat in that race.
Current law calls for a jungle primary in November, followed by a Jan. 5 runoff election if no one reaches 50 percent — which could leave the balance of power in question until after the new Senate is sworn in Jan. 3.
Of the 35 seats up for election, Republicans hold 23 — but only two, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), come from states that Trump lost in 2016. Another handful of seats come in states that could be competitive in the fall, from Arizona to North Carolina, Iowa to Georgia.
Democrats need to win a minimum of three seats and the presidency, with the vice president providing the tie-breaking vote, to claim the majority, and a new study shows Senate races are increasingly correlated to presidential performance.
The percentage of Senate races that went to the same party that won the presidency in that state has steadily grown, from 71 percent in 2000 to 80 percent in 2008 to 100 percent in 2016, according to David de la Fuente, an analyst at Third Way, a center-left think tank.
In that span, 100 senators have run for reelection from a state that picked their party in the presidential election, with 98 of those senators winning. To capture the Senate majority, de la Fuente wrote, Democrats may need someone at the top of the ticket who wins upward of 340 electoral votes and prevails in states like Georgia and Iowa to also bring along the Senate candidate.
Democrats see an opening after McConnell short-circuited the trial without witnesses. Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, surveyed six battleground states and found strong support for witnesses and documents, similar to other national polls.
Throughout the trial, DSCC strategists pounded that message into home-state media for Collins, Gardner and Sens. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), generating plenty of bad headlines for their top four targets.
But Republicans dismiss that issue as something that polls well but will not drive voters to the polls.
“If you ask the average citizen whether they think there ought to be witnesses in a trial, well, you’re going to get an answer you want,” McConnell said at the news conference.
Instead, the NRSC surveyed those four states — Maine, Colorado, Arizona and North Carolina — and found a compelling counter-argument: Plenty of voters want Congress to focus on issues like health care, trade deals and jobs, rather than trying to impeach Trump, while favoring the election to decide Trump’s fate in November.
“Democrat senators are obsessed with impeachment, which is turning out to be an albatross,” Kevin McLaughlin, the executive director of the NRSC, wrote in a memo.
Ultimately, there is no certainty that Trump’s impeachment and the subsequent trial will be that key of an issue by the fall.
Priorities USA and Senate Majority, the Democratic super PACs that announced the digital ad campaign Friday, has not committed to running any ads focused on the Senate trial and might instead focus on other issues.
For his part, McConnell said that Ronald Reagan’s line about the economy would be the likely focus in his reelection campaign: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?”
He is not sure what role impeachment would play.
“In the end it’s not likely to have much of an impact on any of the races, the presidential or the Senate races,” McConnell said.