2020 Vision Thursday: How a tough impeachment vote could threaten the GOP's Senate majority

Andrew Romano
West Coast Correspondent
Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona. (Photos: Alex Brandon/AP [2], Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images [2])

Welcome to 2020 Vision, the Yahoo News column covering the presidential race with one key takeaway every weekday and a wrap-up each weekend. Reminder: There are 123 days until the Iowa caucuses and 397 days until the 2020 election.

On Thursday, Need to Impeach, a group funded mainly by billionaire activist and Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer, will launch a $3.1 million ad blitz targeting four of the most vulnerable Republican senators up for reelection in 2020: Susan Collins of Maine, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Martha McSally of Arizona.

The script reads in part: “With all that our country stands for, how can we have a president who thinks the law doesn’t apply to him? Who would bargain away the security of our nation and our elections for his own political gain? We are patriots who have always protected democracy. Will our senator?”

And that’s only the beginning of the headaches in store for the small group of endangered GOP senators whose votes on impeachment may eventually decide their electoral fates — and control of the Senate itself.

The 2018 Senate map was famously tilted against Democrats — so much so that Republicans wound up gaining two seats even though they lost the nationwide popular vote for all Senate races by 20 percentage points.

The 2020 map isn’t a slam dunk for Democrats, but it’s friendlier, according to the expert analysts at the Cook Political Report. Of the 12 Democratic seats in play, only one (Doug Jones in Alabama) is considered a tossup, and only three (Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico) are seen as remotely competitive (that is, not “solid” for Democrats). By comparison, there are 23 Republican-held seats on the board, and three of them are tossups: McSally, Gardner and Collins. One more (Thom Tillis of North Carolina) merely “leans” Republican, and an additional seven (including Ernst in Iowa and both Senate seats in Georgia) are considered competitive.

To regain their Senate majority, Democrats need to flip three seats (with a Democratic vice president, who casts the deciding vote in a tied Senate) or four seats (if Republicans keep the White House).

The question now is whether the impeachment push can help them get there. The theory, at least, is that President Trump will be so toxic in key battleground states by the time the Senate holds an impeachment trial, Republican senators from those states will be forced to make an impossible decision: break with the GOP, vote to remove him from office and lose the Republican base (and reelection) — or take one for the team, vote to keep him in office and lose swing voters (and reelection).

President Trump (Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

No one knows how impeachment will play out. But at-risk Republican senators are squirming already, and with good reason.

In Colorado — where Trump’s disapproval rating is 15 points higher than his approval rating and where recent polling shows Democratic Senate candidate John Hickenlooper, a former governor, clobbering Gardner by 10 to 13 percentage points — the incumbent is doing everything he can to dodge the issue. “Let’s find out what’s happening,” Gardner said last week. “Let’s get to the bottom of this. I’m not going to get in front of the facts that I simply don’t have right now.”

In Maine — where Trump is underwater by 13 points and where Collins’s approval rating fell 16 points in the first half of 2019 — the incumbent is staying mum. “I don’t know what evidence they’re using,” Collins said initially. Then, after the release of the Ukrainian call summary and the whistleblower report, she started to backtrack. “I would remind everyone, if articles of impeachment are passed by the House, that my role would be to act as a juror,” Collins said. “So I’m not going to be prejudging the evidence and I’m not going to be commenting on the House’s proceedings.”

Meanwhile, in Arizona and North Carolina — where Trump is also underwater, but by less — McSally and Tillis are sounding more combative.

“Literally, [Democrats] are on a path to reelect the president, keep the Senate majority [Republican] and possibly flip [i.e., lose] the House,” McSally told Politico. “It’s a total distraction.”

“To me it’s not a hard vote,” Tillis added. “The facts lead you where they lead. What I’ve seen to this point makes me wonder if it’s going to be anything other than a political exercise. Having the Democrats on record for a frivolous activity on an impeachment vote may be a hard vote for them.”

Perhaps. But recent polls have shown rising public support for impeachment — and both McSally and Tillis trailing their Democratic challengers. For now, they may not think impeachment is a “hard vote.” We’ll see where they are in a few months.

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