As Goes McConnell, So Goes the Senate?

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
January 19, 2021

Now that the House has voted to impeach President Trump a second time, what clues can we discover to give us an idea on whether the Senate vote will be different than the one after his first impeachment?

We can start with public opinion, thanks to the just-released NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 registered voters conducted Jan. 10-13. It showed that this narrowly divided country is also narrowly divided on impeachment, with 50 percent in favor of the Senate impeaching and removing Trump from office, and 49 percent against it.

By comparison, in October 2019, before Trump’s first Senate trial, the NBC/WSJ poll showed 49 percent in favor to 46 percent opposed. Asked in December, the respondents were split at 48 percent each.

The new survey also asked whether “the protests that led to the rioters overtaking the U.S. Capitol should be described as an act of terrorism.” Fifty-seven percent said yes, (48 percent strongly, 9 percent not-so-strongly), while 40 percent said no (29 percent strongly, 11 percent not-so-strongly).

What about members of Congress? In the late 1940s, Rufus Miles, a senior-level bureaucrat then working at the Bureau of the Budget (now the Office of Management and Budget) coined the aphorism, “where you stand depends on where you sit.” I have long thought it was a very apt phrase in politics. Different people have different points of view based on where they are situated geographically, politically, economically, or socially. How any member handles their words and actions regarding Trump will largely, though not entirely, be determined by the voting patterns of their states and districts, and in which chamber they sit. A secret-ballot vote might well be different from the one that goes into the public record.

There are many ways to slice and dice Congress, to segment different groups in each party. One is to put those who are chiefly concerned about losing a general election in one bucket, and those who are more vulnerable in a primary in another. Think of these groups as the political analogue of self-taught psychologist John Gray’s 1992 book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, in that they might as well be from different planets.

There are also inherent differences between party members depending on what chamber of Congress they're in. Generally, House members represent more homogenous constituencies, while senators’ constituents are usually much more diverse. With the luxury of six-year terms, often senators are not in the perpetual campaign mode of House members, with their two-year terms. (For evidence, look no further than how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy have approached the Trump issue since that violent and disgraceful assault on the Capitol last Wednesday.)

As it often is, electoral politics is the final piece of the puzzle. It is a pretty safe bet that McConnell, and more than a few of his Republican Senate colleagues, believe that Trump’s words and behavior cost them both of Georgia's Senate seats in last week’s runoff elections. David Perdue lost his reelection bid to Jon Ossoff by 1.2 percentage points, fewer than 60,000 votes out of almost 4.5 million cast. His appointed colleague, Kelly Loeffler, came up 2 points short to Rev. Raphael Warnock, a margin of less than 95,000 votes. Given how tight its statewide races in 2018 and 2020 were, there is a good case to be made that Georgia is the most evenly divided state in the union. That means that even a small backlash against the president could have easily put Democrats over the top in the runoffs.

Maybe only McConnell himself knows whether he will vote to convict Trump in an impeachment trial after Jan. 19, but he has little to worry about in his Senate Conference. Trump figures to be a millstone around the necks of Republicans in coming years; the only question is how heavy it will be. Banned from Twitter and becoming a pariah outside of his base, there is little danger that Trump will win the presidency in 2024, but to the extent that the Trump brand and the party brand have become conflated, the question is whether his name remains synonymous with the GOP for the next two, four, or six years.

McConnell’s No. 1 mission: get that majority back in 2022. Given that the party holding the White House tends to lose congressional seats in midterm elections, history suggests that Republicans would be favored to score a net gain. But Republicans have more exposure with 20 seats up for reelection, compared to 14 for Democrats. At this point, there are only two open seats: in North Carolina, where Richard Burr is retiring, and in Pennsylvania, where Pat Toomey is as well. Both seats will be extremely competitive, as Trump carried North Carolina by 1.3 points, while Biden won Pennsylvania by 1.2 points.

A Senate impeachment vote is absolutely unpredictable right now. It isn’t hard to come up with a half-dozen or so GOP senators that will vote to convict, up from just Mitt Romney a year ago. How McConnell goes is an important tell, not just because it would give “permission” for other Republicans to do the same, but also there is no better vote counter in the Senate. He is not afraid of leading, but he doesn’t often get too far ahead of the rest of that band. Keeping his conference together is important to him—especially if he feels there will be an electoral price to be paid for the vote.

But it is a good bet that the cool and calculated McConnell, not normally a very sentimental person, is sitting on four years of built-up frustration with the mercurial and undisciplined Trump.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on January 15, 2021.