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(Bloomberg) -- The Republican Party has now fully put its fate in President Donald Trump’s hands.
Republican senators marched in lockstep Wednesday to acquit a man who many of them four years ago had derided as a crackpot and interloper who would usher in the demise of their party. Now Trump is the figure they are counting on to keep the party in power in a country that is deeply divided.
Republicans are counting on a growing economy and a booming stock market to help put the impeachment drama and the multiple controversies swirling about his administration in the rear view mirror when voters go to the polls in November to decide control of the White House and Congress.
“My belief is that six weeks from now, nobody will be talking about this,” said GOP Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership team.
Trump has a tight grip on Republican voters and enforces party discipline with an iron fist and quick, cutting tweets. His two most outspoken critics in the Senate -- Jeff Flake of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee -- retired instead of running again in 2018. Even close allies like Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida have taken hits; Gaetz was cut out of Trump’s team of designated GOP surrogates during the impeachment trial after he voted to limit Trump’s war powers.
After Utah Senator Mitt Romney announced Wednesday he would vote to convict Trump on the abuse of power charge -- the sole Republican to do so -- Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, tweeted that he should be “expelled” from the GOP. The president tweeted out a video attacking Romney for “posing as a Republican.” At the White House on Thursday he taunted Romney as a “failed presidential candidate” in 2012.
Trump also is effusive with praise for those who stick with him. In a meandering speech at the White House event, Trump attacked Democrats as “vicious as hell” and gave lengthy thanks by name to some of his most vocal supporters in the House and Senate and lauded McConnell, who steered the impeachment trial to a quick conclusion.
“We’ve got your back,” North Carolina Representative Mark Meadows told the president.
The broad Republican Party embrace of Trump is a sharp turnabout from 2016, when he was reality TV star with no experience in elective office running for the GOP presidential nomination.
Then, many Republican office-holders openly expressed dismay as the bombastic billionaire began to gain in primaries, shunting aside more established politicians including four GOP senators.
Among the “Never Trumpers” then was Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina who said Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements left him “dumbfounded” and called him “unfit for office.” Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, also a 2016 presidential contender, called Trump “utterly immoral” and a “pathological liar.” And Senator Martha McSally of Arizona, then a House lawmaker, said she couldn’t endorse Trump after release of the “Access Hollywood” recording with his comments bragging about sexually assaulting women.
A number of senators up for re-election in 2016 opted to skip the GOP national convention, and Cruz was booed on the stage there when he failed to endorse Trump and told Republicans to “vote your conscience.”
Now many of them are among Trump’s most vocal supporters and all voted to acquit Trump on the impeachment charges he abused his power and obstructed Congress.
Cruz said on the Senate floor that Trump had “more than sufficient basis” to seek a corruption probe of political rival Joe Biden and his son, and said House prosecutors engaged in “partisan games.” Graham called Trump’s impeachment “a partisan railroad job” and supports a congressional investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter.
“This sham process is the low point of the Senate for me,” Graham said.
McConnell said Trump’s improving poll numbers -- a Gallup poll conducted amid the impeachment trial showed his approval rating at a high-water mark of 49% -- makes him confident that the impeachment and trial have only helped Republicans in 2020.
“Every one of our people in tough races, every one of them, is in better shape than they were before the impeachment trial started,” he said.
The embrace of Trump is for better or worse. Trump retains a propensity for controversy, and there is the potential for new, damaging information from lawsuits and investigations or an economic slowdown triggered by an outside event, such as a significantly wider spread of the novel coronavirus.
“The danger for Republicans is the president collapses in the fall and he drags his party down with him,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball election forecast at the University of Virginia.
With the House expected to stay in Democratic hands after November, Senate Republicans have the most at stake. They’re favored to keep control of a chamber they control, 53-47. Yet Democrats have an opening because they hold just two seats seen as at risk of flipping in November, and the number of vulnerable GOP-held Senate seats has risen to about half a dozen.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has promised to use their votes on acquittal against Republicans in this year’s closest races, including Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado and McSally. Democrats need to wrest at least three seats from Republicans to take control of the Senate after the November election.
During the impeachment trial, there was scant GOP criticism of Trump. As they announced their intentions on a verdict, at least six other Republican senators said they found Trump’s request for Ukraine to investigate a political rival improper or in inappropriate. Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski called Trump’s behavior in the Ukraine scandal “shameful and wrong.” Nevertheless all but Romney voted to acquit the president.
Only Romney said Trump of “guilty of an appalling abuse of the public trust.”
Democrats contend the GOP unity will be costly for Collins and other vulnerable incumbent Republicans if more shoes drop in the Ukraine scandal, particularly revelations from former Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton. Republicans rejected Democratic demands to call Bolton as a witness during the trial.
Republicans “are going to have a lot of explaining to do as to why they did not want to hear the truth, and it’s going to become even harder to defend as more information comes out from John Bolton and others about the president’s abuse of power,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat and former chairman of Democrats’ campaign committee.
Several of the Republicans facing potentially tough 2020 re-election campaigns said this week that they see little negative impact from the impeachment trial.
GOP Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina said voters are more focused on the economy and that it’s folly for Democrats to attack Republicans on their impeachment votes.
“People in North Carolina are over this,” he said. “If you go and talk to those same voters and you ask them are you better off now than four years ago, that’s how they’re going to vote. So they can do it, but I think they do so at their own peril.”
--With assistance from Steven T. Dennis.
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