Its impact on the presidential race will be a wash. But can Mitch McConnell stop it from shaking his hold on Congress?
Now that we’ve worked our way through the dramatic first phase of the impeachment drama, it’s time to start thinking hard about what the ultimate political fallout of all this might be.
Of course it’s impossible to predict the twists and turns that await us, especially with so unstable a protagonist. But I’m going to make three wildly premature predictions:
1. As pertains to the presidential election, the political fallout will be a wash.
2. As regards the House elections, the Democrats might lose one or two seats here or there, but here, too, the fallout will be minimal.
3. The biggest impact will be on the Senate elections, particularly in the four states where Republican incumbents look to be facing potentially stiff Democratic challenges.
In other words, all the talk about what this means for the White House is largely beside the point — the question is whether the Ukraine scandal will deliver the Senate into Democratic hands.
Let’s go through these points one at a time.
At the presidential level, the conventional wisdom has been that impeachment could help Mr. Trump. Assuming that the Republican-controlled Senate will acquit him of any articles moved by the House, he will crow that he was exonerated. He’ll own the media narrative, and the whole thing will seem to persuadable voters to have been a waste of time.
That’s possible. But I suspect that both sides are so dug in that impeachment won’t make much political difference one way or the other. Look at everything that’s happened since January 2017. Mr. Trump has done and said dozens of things that would have produced major, tenure-defining scandals for any other president. And yet, through it all, his numbers haven’t budged. If children in cages and 12,000 lies didn’t budge them, why should impeachment? My guess is it won’t.
Now to the House. Again, the conventional wisdom has been that the Democrats’ majority depends on a couple dozen purple districts, many of which Mr. Trump won, so they had better proceed with caution lest they risk losing some of those seats.
Again, this is entirely possible. The attitudes of independent voters will matter a lot here, as these Democrats will need to perform well among independents to hold their seats. If Mr. Trump is above water among independents, an impeachment vote is a risk.
But isn’t it just as likely that Mr. Trump is less popular, in some cases far less popular, in these districts than he was in 2016? After all, by voting for Democrats in 2018, those districts’ voters arguably sent a message that they were unhappy with Mr. Trump. What exactly has happened that would make them happy? And while impeachment might have seemed like overreach before, my guess is that post-Ukraine, that’s less so.
Impeachment may not help House Democrats, but I would bet it won’t hurt them in the way catastrophists fear. Swing-district Democrats can make a solid case this winter that Mr. Trump went too far, and then get back to talking prescription drug prices by the spring.
The Senate, though, is a different and more interesting matter. Right now, four Republican incumbents in swing (or swing-ish) states face competitive races: Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado, Susan Collins in Maine and Thom Tillis in North Carolina.
Mr. Trump is underwater in all four states — narrowly in North Carolina, a bit less so in Arizona, and badly in the other two. But of course, among Republicans in those states, the president is presumably as popular as he is among Republicans everywhere.
Hence the quartet’s dilemma, if they are forced to consider voting whether to acquit Mr. Trump or convict him. Logic tells us that politically, they’ll want to vote to convict, with the probable exception of Mr. Tillis. For a Republican in a state where Mr. Trump isn’t popular, convict is a much safer vote than acquit.
However, the Republican parties in all these states are pretty Trumpy these days. In Maine, for example, the state party last January re-elected as its party leader a woman, Demi Kouzounas, who said her party had been “too nice.” This was during the tenure of a former governor, Paul LePage, known for saying nice things like “guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, and Shifty” come to his state and impregnate white girls. Recently, the chairwoman said of impeachment: “Another day, another witch hunt in Washington, D.C.”
In other words, Ms. Collins — and the other three — could very well lose support in their own party if they vote to convict Mr. Trump. They are going to have a very tough year. (Senator Doug Jones, Democrat of Alabama, will face a similar Hobson’s choice, it should be noted.)
How tough a year will depend to some extent on how the majority leader, Mitch McConnell, decides to play things should the House send articles of impeachment to the Senate. Much speculation has swirled around whether Mr. McConnell would hold a trial at all. A tape emerged last week of him saying back in March that a trial would be required; others still suspect that the man who let Merrick Garland twist in the wind for all those months is capable of anything.
Here’s one example of what “anything” could mean. Everyone knows that two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict to result in removal from office. But what everyone doesn’t know is that a simple majority can vote to dismiss the articles without a trial.
Mr. McConnell would face tremendous pressure from Mr. Trump and his amen corner to do just that. How would the four vulnerable Republicans vote on that motion? We’d see a lot of footage of them running for the senate elevators frantically pushing the “close door” button as journalists bear down on them.
It’s one scenario. Who knows. Maybe this all turns badly for Republicans, they lose all four seats, Doug Jones narrowly defeats a back-from-the-political-dead Roy Moore, and the Senate falls into the blue column. Maybe.
But the interesting thing about the political fallout question at this point is exactly that: No one knows. And in that knowledge vacuum reposes, for many legislators, a kind of liberation, I think. If politicians can’t confidently game out what will happen, then they might as well just do what’s right, argue their position with conviction, and see what happens. The country could surely use some of that.