Potential Dem defectors face pressure on impeachment
Senate Republicans aren’t the only ones worried about possible defectors during a likely impeachment trial for President Trump.
Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Doug Jones (Ala.) are expected to come under heavy pressure from constituents to acquit Trump when articles of impeachment come before the Senate.
Breaking ranks would not only deal a significant blow to Democratic unity in 2020, it also would give Trump and his allies more rhetorical ammo on the campaign trail.
While most of the public attention has been focused on which GOP senators might vote to convict Trump, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has to worry about whether his caucus can stick together.
Early indications are that Manchin is more likely than Jones to vote to acquit Trump, but both are considered more in play than the rest of their Democratic colleagues.
Trump, who faces no real prospect of being removed from office given the level of GOP support for him in the Senate, is projected to win both West Virginia and Alabama handily in next year’s election. He carried West Virginia by 42 points and Alabama by 28 points in 2016.
Any vote the Democratic senators cast to convict Trump would likely be countered by their constituents in November, political experts in both states say.
The online polling firm Civiqs, which tracks the president’s approval rating on a state-by-state basis, found that Trump has a 66 percent approval rating in West Virginia and a 59 percent favorable rating in Alabama.
Republican strategists say a vote by Jones to impeach Trump would be a sign that he doesn’t expect to win reelection in 2020 and is already setting the stage for the next phase of his political career, possibly as a high-level appointee in a Democratic administration.
“He basically signs his death warrant if he votes to impeach,” said Jim McLaughlin, a Republican political strategist who has worked on a variety of state and federal campaigns in Alabama.
“I think he’s basically auditioning for the next Democrat that’s president to be in his Cabinet,” said McLaughlin, citing Jones’s vote against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and an array of other Trump nominees and priorities since he came to the Senate in January 2018.
Unlike Jones, Manchin voted to confirm Kavanaugh a month before he faced voters in the 2018 midterm election, when he won with 50 percent of the vote.
Patrick Hickey, a professor of political science at West Virginia University, called Manchin’s vote for Kavanaugh “a politically savvy move” that may have saved his Senate career.
“That race ended up being closer than people thought,” he said. “I think that Kavanaugh vote might have kept him in office.”
Hickey said Trump’s support in West Virginia remains solid and voters there tend to see the president’s pressure on Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden as not rising to the level of an impeachable offense.
“There’s a lot of ‘everyone does this kind of stuff, this is just politics, all politicians, all presidents would do this, withholding aid in exchange for something,’ ” Hickey said, explaining that West Virginia voters tend to see Trump’s actions as typical political horse trading.
John Merrill, Alabama’s Republican secretary of state, said he expects Jones to vote without paying much attention to the political ramifications, but warned that a vote to convict Trump will prove unpopular with Alabama voters.
“I think Sen. Jones will do whatever he wants to do anyway, because that’s what he’s done since he’s been in office. I don’t think he will follow what he believes to be the will of the people of Alabama because that would be an interruption in his normal operating procedures since he’s been in office,” Merrill said.
Merrill, who had been in the running for Jones’s seat before dropping out of the Republican primary this month, said “he’s not going to be able to square it with the voters” if he votes to convict.
He said most Alabamians believe impeachment “has been generated to defeat the president because they can’t defeat him at the ballot box.”
Jones has said repeatedly that he will cast his vote solely on the merits of the case against Trump and that he will not take reelection politics into consideration.
“This is not about an election,” Jones told The Hill in late September. “This needs to be talked about [in terms of] the security of the country.”
Like the Republican senators who are in play on the impeachment vote — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — Jones and Manchin have kept their cards close to the vest, giving little indication how they may vote.
Last week, Jones said a Senate impeachment trial should take precedence over political considerations, such as the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. That prompted speculation some presidential candidates in the Senate may skip portions of the trial to campaign.
Jones, in a nod to Trump’s defense, told The Hill that the president should have broad latitude to call witnesses to defend himself.
“I want the facts to be known. I want the facts to come out. I’d love to be able to see people testify that have been prohibited from testifying [during the House hearings]. Because if they can exonerate the president, I want to hear that,” he said.
While some Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle have expressed preference for a shorter trial, Jones said he wants to review the matter thoroughly, regardless of the timeline.
“I think this ought to take precedence over the State of the Union, the Iowa caucuses,” he said. “This is a very, very serious matter that we need to do, and we need to get it right. If it takes longer, it takes longer. If we can get it done shorter, that’s fine. It needs to be thorough, it needs to be fair.”
Manchin, like his friend and frequent partner in dealmaking, Collins, is pledging to keep an open mind.
He told West Virginia’s MetroNews “Talkline” last week that he’s waiting for the Senate to have access to all the facts.
“Before we go down this road, and we’re going to be voting on removing a president or not, you want to make sure the facts are solid,” Manchin said.
He added that senators would have a chance to review classified material related to impeachment.
Yet Manchin also indicated he would seriously consider voting to convict by raising concern about Trump’s willingness to invite foreign intervention in the 2020 presidential election.
“The thing I think the president or his people around him do not either understand or take serious [is] the intervention of foreign entities,” he said.
Mike Plante, a longtime Democratic strategist based in West Virginia, said it would be very tough for Manchin to vote to convict given Trump’s popularity in the state, but added that Manchin can move in unpredictable directions.
He cited Manchin’s partnership with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on gun-control legislation in 2013 after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, an unorthodox move for a politician who represents voters who are strong supporters of gun rights.
“On face value, that’s a tough vote for any elected official in West Virginia to make, but it’s been difficult to predict sometimes on how he votes,” Plante said. “Some speculate he’s going to finish his term, and he’s more focused on legacy than running again for something.”
“Joe’s roots have always been moderate, conservative Democrat,” he added. “I think Joe will be driven by other considerations than simply what he views as the pragmatic political equation.”