As former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial began Tuesday, all eyes were on one set of jurors: Republican senators who are up for reelection next year.
Republicans need a net gain of only one seat to win back the Senate, now split 50-50 and under Democratic control because of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote. But they are also defending 20 seats to the Democrats’ 14, with GOP-held seats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and now Alabama opening up due to retiring incumbents. Republicans will try to hold seats in two states won by President Biden, while the Democrats are defending none in states Trump won last year.
House Democratic impeachment managers don’t want to make it easy for Republicans to vote to acquit Trump, reminding them in an often emotional presentation of the terror they all felt as they fled the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6. Trump is being charged with inciting an insurrection. “They could have killed all of us,” said Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat who is among the lawmakers prosecuting the case against Trump.
Seventeen Republican senators will need to vote with all 50 Democrats for Trump to be convicted. Since his term has already expired, the only consequence of a conviction would be a subsequent vote to ban him from serving in public office in the future, which could prevail with a simple majority in both houses. Republicans in competitive races who vote to acquit Trump can expect to be put on the defensive over his election claims and actions as his supporters stormed the Capitol.
Not all Republicans are deterred. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is up next year, and he has led the charge to dismiss the article of impeachment against Trump on the grounds that the Senate lacks the constitutional authority to try a former president. All but five GOP senators voted with Paul on this question when the point of order was initially raised.
But the number of Republican senators voting that the trial was constitutional rose to six on Monday, as Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana joined their ranks. “I’m trying to digest facts,” he told reporters. “And I thought the arguments they gave were strong arguments.” Cassidy is not up for reelection next year, but fellow Louisiana GOP Sen. John Kennedy is.
Many Republicans argue that impeaching a president who is already out of office contradicts Biden’s message of unity and takes up time better spent dealing with the twin crises of the economy and the pandemic.
“Today Senate Democrats could be working with Republicans on the issues Americans actually care about, but instead they are moving ahead with yet another politically-motivated impeachment trial, this time of a president who is no longer in office,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement laying out that case.
“While the eventual outcome of this impeachment trial is not in question, the credibility of Democrats’ calls for unity is, McDaniel added. “This unconstitutional exercise may unite Democrat leaders around their hatred of President Trump, but it will only further divide our nation at a time when we desperately need unity.”
Democrats countered that unity requires accountability for a former president who repeatedly claimed that the election was stolen, who summoned his supporters to Washington on the day the Electoral College vote was to be certified, and then urged them to march on the Capitol. Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead House impeachment manager, said the GOP’s constitutional argument against the Senate trying a president after he left office when he was impeached late in his term would create “a January exception” to the Constitution.
Close Senate races are expected next year in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Iowa could become more competitive if longtime Sen. Chuck Grassley joins the list of Republican retirements. Sen. Mike Lee of Utah is expected to win easily, but he is representing a red state where Trump is not especially popular. Fellow Utah Sen. Mitt Romney was the only Republican to vote to convict Trump on one article of impeachment in his previous Senate trial last year.
Republican operatives note that the election is almost two years away. “Impeachment will be a lifetime away from Nov. 22, whatever the outcome,” one said. Democrats may draw out Trump’s time in the national spotlight, but by then, the focus will have shifted to Biden.
“Biden’s agenda will unify Republicans, and it already has. His unprecedented use of executive orders has made bipartisan compromise impossible,” said GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. “Republicans will increasingly work to prevent his left-wing agenda on substantive and political grounds. Retaking the House majority is within their reach, and it would be truly significant.”
That doesn’t mean some Republicans aren’t nervous about the images of Jan. 6 that already have been a prominent part of the Democrats’ impeachment case, especially as they try to put the Senate majority within their reach, too.
“I won’t be surprised to see this footage in some commercials,” the Republican operative said.