On the surface, it seems like a plausible idea. Unfortunately, political reality makes it all but impossible, in a way that reveals a great deal about what the upcoming election will be like. If these senators are looking for some way to split the difference between going along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s coverup and turning on the president, they won’t find one. There is no middle way.
There are only seven truly vulnerable Republican senators: Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Martha McSally of Arizona, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, and the two Georgia senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, both of whom are running (Loeffler was appointed to fill the seat of Johnny Isakson, who retired last year).
Let’s consider Gardner, who as a first-termer gives the best illustration of the position the group finds itself in.
Gardner is known as a relative moderate and someone who from time to time will gingerly disagree with some repulsive thing Trump has said. He represents a state won by the Democrat in the past three presidential elections. (Hillary Clinton won there by 5 points.)
During the impeachment, Gardner has been so eager to avoid attention he’s practically walked around Capitol Hill in a wig and fake moustache. He’s refusing all interview requests. He hasn’t held a town meeting in two years. One Colorado reporter ran him down in the airport and asked whether he was open to witnesses testifying in the impeachment trial, to which Gardner replied, “We have a trial. That’s where we’re at right now.” You don’t say.
Here’s Gardner’s problem, the same one faced by other senators from swing states. If he goes along with McConnell and votes to refuse any more evidence to be admitted, Democrats will rightly charge him with complicity in not only covering up Trump’s misdeeds but in validating those misdeeds themselves, confirming that there’s nothing wrong with the president coercing a foreign government to help his reelection campaign. That will alienate Democratic voters. But if Gardner votes to allow new evidence, Republicans will call him a traitor.
Those are his only choices. There isn’t some clever way to satisfy everyone. Given how McConnell has constructed this trial — and how Trump has built his whole presidency — you’re either with Trump or you’re against him.
There’s a common misconception about swing states such as Colorado that explains how stark the choice faced by senators like Gardner will be. The misconception is that those states are populated by moderate voters who want their representatives to take positions somewhere between the two parties. But that’s not true. Instead, swing states are just as partisan as heavily Republican or heavily Democratic states. It’s just that they contain roughly equal numbers of Democratic partisans and Republican partisans.
While every state is a little different, that situation has come to be mirrored in one swing state after another as polarization has solidified.
Trump has brought this to a new level. As Gallup reported this week, the third year of Trump’s presidency set a new record for polarization in presidential approval, an 82-point gap between Republicans’ approval of Trump (89 percent) and Democrats’ approval of him (7 percent).
So Gardner is stuck in two ways: The trial has been built by McConnell and the White House to permit no middle ground between supporting Trump absolutely and opposing him absolutely, and Gardner’s constituents aren’t really looking for him to find that middle ground anyway.
So far he’s been keeping quiet, but the universal assumption is that in the end he’ll just go along with his party. If he voted against Trump, his Republican constituents would abandon him, but he wouldn’t win many converts among his Democratic constituents, and he’d lose. At least if he sticks with Trump he has a chance.
That’s the calculation that McSally made. While she’s in a close race with astronaut Mark Kelly in a state that many predict a Democratic presidential nominee could win for the first time since 1996, McSally has chosen to go all-in for Trump. When a CNN reporter asked her if she wanted to hear new evidence, she responded, “You’re a liberal hack. I’m not talking to you,” and then quickly began to raise money promoting the incident. She obviously decided that her only way to win is to act like Sean Hannity so Trump fans will rally to her side — even if that alienates other voters.
So if you’re looking for those vulnerable Republicans to signal their open-mindedness by voting to allow new evidence in Trump’s trial, don’t get your hopes up. It’s just too much of a risk for them to take.