The political battle scars from President Trump‘s impeachment trial are the new wildcard heading into this year’s fight for control of the Senate.
The near party-line votes to acquit Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress are most likely to impact the reelection bids for Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who were already considered some of the most vulnerable senators heading into November.
Collins has presented herself to voters as an independent, but that branding took a hit Wednesday when Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) cast the only Republican vote to remove Trump from office.
Maine statehouse speaker Sara Gideon, Collins’s Democratic challenger, quickly seized on Wednesday’s vote to tie her opponent to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
“Her decision to acquit despite the case against the president and without hearing more of the facts again reveals her commitment to standing with Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump,” Gideon said in a statement.
Emily’s list, a pro-Democratic PAC, has since sent out several fundraising emails targeting Collins and other vulnerable GOP incumbents.
Collins is one of only two Senate Republicans, the other being Sen. Cory Gardner (Colo.), running for reelection in a state that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. But unlike Gardner, Collins has staked much of her reputation as being an independent voice in the Senate.
Democrats will try to unseat Collins this year by chipping away at that reputation, pointing to two of her most consequential votes in recent years: Her support of Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and her opposition to the two articles of impeachment against Trump.
Janet Martin, a professor of government at Bowdoin College in Maine, noted that Collins launched her reelection campaign in December with a statewide advertising campaign touting herself as an independent senator willing to work across party lines.
But Martin, who once worked for former Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine), said Collins’s brand as an independent was undercut by Romney’s vote to remove Trump from office.
“I’d say she’s not at all in the same league as Mitt Romney,” Martin said. “She’s not in the league of a [former Republican Sen.] Bill Cohen [R-Maine] or a George Mitchell,” alluding to two former senators known for bipartisanship.
A senior Senate GOP aide provided a similar assessment Wednesday after the trial votes.
“It puts Sen. Collins in a real bad spot to have someone run in that independent [lane] that she typically does. This is such a tough vote for her,” the source said.
Martin pointed out that one advantage Collins has is her reputation for providing excellent constituent services, something she may lean into in the months ahead.
“Her emphasis has always been on service,” Martin said. “She provides service unlike any other senator. And so servicing constituent needs might trump Trump in this particular case. But that’s the only way I could see her having success as the incumbent.”
A poll released in late January by the Garin Hart Yang Research Group, a Democratic firm, found that 53 percent of Maine voters said they believed Trump abused his power for personal benefit by withholding military aid to Ukraine.
Geoff Garin, the president of the firm, released polling in early January showing that 63 percent of voters in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina would react unfavorably if the Republican incumbents in those states voted against subpoenaing new witnesses and documents in the impeachment trial.
Thomas Volgy, a political science professor at the University of Arizona and former Democratic mayor of Tucson, said, “I think the intensity of opposition to McSally just increased.”
Senate Democrats are now hoping to use that as ammo in this year’s election.
“Senators of both parties have said President Trump is guilty of misconduct but the Republican incumbents on the ballot this year did not have the courage or honesty to uphold the rule of law,” said Lauren Passalacqua, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They blocked subpoenas to hear from witnesses and are complicit in orchestrating Mitch McConnell’s cover-up at the expense of a fair trial.”
Gardner’s vote drew a strong rebuke from the Denver Post, which endorsed him in 2014.
“Gardner once said he would stand up to his own party. Turns out he won’t even be critical of the actions of a member of his own party. He must believe what Trump did was fine. Why won’t he just say that?” the paper said in an editorial published Thursday.
In Arizona, McSally has taken criticism from former allies for repeatedly evading questions from reporters before the Senate trial on where she stood on the question of subpoenaing new evidence.
The Eastern Arizona Courier, which endorsed McSally’s appointment to the Senate after she lost her 2018 Senate race to Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), scolded her for calling a CNN reporter a “liberal hack” when the journalist asked her about considering new evidence.
“It’s reasonable to disagree with policy. What is not reasonable is name-calling like a third-grader on the playground,” the paper wrote in an editorial.
But it’s far from a sure bet that voters will care about impeachment nine months from now, particularly since there isn’t much evidence the trial captured the attention of Americans the way it riveted Washington and much of the media.
McConnell on Wednesday downplayed the impact of the impeachment trial on the 2020 battle for the Senate.
“I still think we had great teamwork on this and I think we’re in a good position going into our senate races and the presidential race with regard to this issue. There may be plenty of other issues between now and November, but I think we’re in pretty good shape right now,” he said.
Republicans point to polling data collected by the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) in battleground states such as Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina in January showing that 62 percent of voters — and 63 percent of independents — believed that Congress should focus on health care costs, trade and the economy instead of removing Trump from office.
The NRSC polling also found that 58 percent of voters in those states thought that Democrats should let the November election decide Trump’s future instead of a vote in the Senate.
Republicans will try to paint the impeachment effort as motivated primarily by pressure on Democrats from their liberal base.
“Every Senate Democrat – incumbent and candidate alike – bent to the whims of the extreme voices in their Party, which continues to embarrass itself on a national stage. They’ve been hell-bent on impeaching this President since the day he took office and it’s wearing thin with voters in battleground states,” NRSC spokesman Jesse Hunt said in a statement.
That message, however, is undercut by Romney’s vote to remove Trump from office, the first time in American history a senator voted to convict a president from his own party on an article of impeachment.
Romney prefaced his vote with a searing floor speech in which he said Trump was “guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust” and “a flagrant assault on our electoral rights.”
While other GOP senators didn’t go as far as Romney, several also criticized Trump’s conduct.
Of the Democrats running for reelection this year, Jones, who represents a state where Trump won with a 28-point margin of victory in 2016, will be most impacted by the impeachment debate.
His votes to convict Trump on both articles of impeachment likely seals his defeat, but given his long-shot path to victory, they won’t change the calculus for Senate control greatly.
“I think he’s done. I think he was done before that, to be perfectly honest with you,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican strategist who has worked extensively on Alabama races. “I think, literally, what he’s doing is he’s auditioning for the next Democratic presidential Cabinet. I think he wants to be attorney general or something else.”
A Democratic strategist pushed back on that analysis by pointing out that Jones is substantially ahead of his likely GOP opponent, former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), in fundraising.
Jones reported $5.4 million in cash on hand at the end of the fourth quarter while Sessions reported $2.54 million and Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.), who is also vying for the seat, had $2.52 million.