On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats announced two articles of impeachment against President Trump: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Soon, the U.S. House will almost certainly vote to pass those two articles. And then things move to the U.S. Senate, where things seem just as inevitable: The GOP-led Senate will block Trump’s removal.
But it’s worth explaining exactly why we think the Senate won’t vote to remove Trump. So let’s break down the vote among all 100 senators — we expect a mostly party-line vote, but there are actually a number of different incentives at work beneath the surface. (Remember that a two-thirds majority — at least 67 votes — is needed to remove Trump.)
Let’s start with the Democrats.
Almost certain to vote for removal: 44 Democrats
Trump’s removal is supported by a plurality of Americans (48 percent) and more than 80 percent of Democrats. So if you’re the typical Democratic senator, who represents a blue-leaning state, the safe and obvious vote is for Trump’s removal. And that’s without even considering the strong evidence that Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the Bidens in exchange for a White House meeting and military aid.
It’s hard for me to see even Democrats who like to emphasize their bipartisanship — Chris Coons of Delaware, for example — or those up for reelection in 2020 in blue-tinged swing states — Gary Peters of Michigan, Tina Smith of Minnesota — voting against impeachment. Impeachment is popular enough among Democratic voters that any Democratic senator in a state that’s not solidly red would have serious electoral problems voting against it.
Swing votes based on centrism: 2 Democrats
There are two Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who are not up for re-election in 2020 but who might still vote against removal.
Sinema, who was elected last November, is known to be fairly centrist and comfortable bucking her party. She was one of only three Democrats who backed the confirmation of William Barr to be attorney general, for example. Manchin is friendly with Trump and voted for Barr and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The West Virginian has taken the same position as the Trump White House on key votes about 31 percent of the time in the current Congress, making him the chamber’s most Trump-aligned Democrat. Sinema is No. 2, backing the president’s position 21 percent of the time.
In terms of partisan lean,1 Arizona leans red, and West Virginia is super conservative. But I doubt electoral considerations matter that much to either Manchin nor Sinema — they aren’t up for reelection until 2024, when Trump’s impeachment will likely be a distant memory.
So I would bet that both Manchin and Sinema vote against Trump’s removal, preserving their brands as separate from the broader Democratic Party.
Swing vote based on electoral considerations: 1 Democrat
Like Manchin and Sinema, Doug Jones of Alabama also voted for Barr. Unlike Manchin and Sinema, Jones is up for re-election in 2020. My read on Jones is that he’s not that personally centrist; instead, he seems to be trying to figure out how to stay in his seat in pro-Trump Alabama. Jones has taken Trump’s position on 18 percent of Senate votes in the current Congress, making him the third-most Trump-aligned Democrat, after Manchin and Sinema. But relative to Alabama’s politics, Jones ranks behind only Jon Tester of Montana in bucking his state’s pro-Trump preferences.
My starting assumption is that Jones will vote against Trump’s removal, hoping that the vote helps his re-election bid. But he could also decide that Trump’s behavior is too extreme to condone and back removal — electoral consequences be damned. Or perhaps Jones votes for Trump’s removal both because he opposes the president’s conduct but also because the Alabama Democrat sees little chance of winning reelection anyway and is basically auditioning for a spot in the next Democratic president’s cabinet. (In 2016, presidential and U.S. Senate voting were highly correlated — no U.S. Senate candidate won in a state where his or her party’s presidential nominee lost. It’s hard to imagine the Democratic presidential nominee winning in Alabama in 2020, so Jones seems like an underdog.)
So that’s at least 44 votes for removal just among Democrats, and as many as 47. The removal of Trump would need another 20-23 votes. Those would have to come from among the chamber’s 53 Republicans, which means removal is 20 to 23 votes short.
At least right now, I don’t think any Republican is likely to vote for Trump’s removal. My guess is that lots of Republicans privately disapprove of Trump’s Ukraine moves. But GOP senators face significant pressure not to publically break with Trump if they want to maintain their standing within the party and not annoy GOP voters who they need to win primaries and general elections.
Still, there are some gradations among the likely no’s. Let’s go through the GOP blocs, from the most likely to the least likely to vote for Trump’s removal.
Trump-skeptical, limited electoral considerations: 2 Republicans
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Mitt Romney of Utah are among the most Trump-skeptical Republicans in Congress, with the Utah senator, in particular, occasionally bashing the president very sharply. Neither has too much to worry about electorally — Murkowski isn’t up for re-election until 2022, and Romney not until 2024. Trump isn’t super popular in Utah, and the state’s Republicans knew they were supporting someone who was not particularly pro-Trump when they nominated Romney in 2018. Murkowski lost a GOP primary in 2010 and then won the general election as a write-in candidate, so she probably isn’t that afraid of breaking with the party, either.
That said, only 8 percent of Republican voters support impeachment. Chiding some of Trump’s more outlandish comments is one thing; supporting the removal of a president with such strong support within your party is something else.
Trump-skeptical, significant electoral considerations: 2 Republicans
Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine are both up for reelection in 2020 in Democratic-leaning states. Both have a history of breaking with Trump. They were part of a group of Republicans who publicly said they would not vote for Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election, for example. And Collins, in particular, has remained fairly critical of the president since he came into office. So there are some reasons to think that both could support the president’s removal.
That said, there was some evidence that Republican congressional candidates who broke with Trump in 2016 did worse than those who remained supportive of him, in part because those candidates lost some support from Trump-aligned voters. Perhaps Collins and Gardner would gain support from more centrist, Romney-Clinton voters if they backed Trump’s removal, making up for any losses among conservatives. But that’s a risky bet. Both need Republican voters in the general election.
Also, voting for removal has the potential to result in an organized campaign to defeat Collins or Gardner in their respective GOP primaries. The deadlines to file for the Senate in Colorado and Maine are in mid-March. That’s not a ton of time for a challenger to ramp up a campaign, since the Senate is likely to vote on impeachment sometime in January. But I think it would be fairly easy for even an obscure Republican to find support among GOP activists and donors if he or she were running against a GOP incumbent who had voted for Trump’s removal. And in Maine, there is a very prominent, pro-Trump Republican maywho I think would challenge Collins the moment she voted for Trump’s removal, ex-Gov. Paul LePage.
In short, for Collins and Gardner, the safest electoral route is to oppose removal.
Trump-skeptical, huge electoral considerations: 1 Republican
Ben Sasse of Nebraska was among Trump’s most vocal GOP critics during the president’s first two years in office. But as Sasse’s 2020 re-election bid has neared, the Nebraska senator has changed course — not quite embracing Trump but not going out of his way to emphasize their disagreements either. Not coincidentally, Sasse already has a primary challenger arguing that he is too anti-Trump.
If Sasse voted to remove Trump, I think he would be defeated in Nebraska’s May 12 primary. So I don’t think his vote is in much in question.
Pro-Trump, retiring (no electoral pressure): 4 Republicans
This group includes Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Pat Roberts of Kansas.2
If Trump was truly in danger of being removed, you’d expect to see the first signs of it in this group. I think Alexander, in particular, would be a part of any such movement. He’s conservative on policy, but more of an old-school-style Republican (think Bob Dole) in terms of temperament. He’s not particularly close to the president.
Similarly, Burr, Enzi and Roberts have no particular loyalty to Trump and no political reason to be wary of supporting his removal. That said, all four are long-time, loyal party members. It’s just really hard to see them breaking with the party’s president on this kind of vote.
Pro-Trump, with significant electoral considerations: 4 Republicans
This group of Republicans — John Cornyn of Texas, Joni Ernst of Iowa, Martha McSally of Arizona, Thom Tillis of North Carolina — has a lot in common with the previous group (neither particularly anti-Trump nor especially pro-Trump), except they’re all up for reelection in 2020 in relatively swingy states. In other words, this is a bit of a complicated vote for them.
The safest course — and the one I would expect all four to take — is to oppose Trump’s removal, therefore preventing a major primary challenge and ensuring Republican voters in their states are strongly behind them for the 2020 general election. That said, for all four, voting against Trump’s removal ties their political prospects even closer to the president’s. If 2020 is an anti-Trump wave year, I think it’s possible that Democrats win Senate seats in Arizona, Iowa, North Carolina and/or Texas — the same Senate-presidential vote alignment that is likely to doom Jones in Alabama would also doom some of these members.
But let’s pause here for a moment. Imagine that everyone in the groups listed so far voted for impeachment. (Again, I don’t think that’s at all likely, but let’s just pretend.) That would still give removal “just” 60 votes — seven short of the required number. That makes this next group of Republicans essentially the deciders in the impeachment process.
Pro-Trump but looking at the polls: 32 Republicans
This is a big group; I’d include: John Barrasso of Wyoming, Roy Blunt of Missouri, John Boozman of Arkansas, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Ted Cruz of Texas, Steve Daines of Montana, Deb Fischer of Nebraska, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, Josh Hawley of Missouri, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, James Lankford of Oklahoma, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Mike Lee of Utah, Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Rob Portman of Ohio, Jim Risch of Idaho, Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Dan Sullivan of Alaska, Tim Scott of South Carolina, Richard Shelby of Alabama, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, John Thune of South Dakota, Todd Young of Indiana, Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
And at first glance, you not might think these members should be in the same group. After all, Graham has been one of Trump’s strongest defenders amid the Ukraine scandal, while some of these senators — Lee and Paul in particular — have fairly low Trump scores and occasionally break with the president on policy. But what ties all these senators together is that they are generally Republicans who rose to power pre-Trump. That means they are probably more interested in preserving the GOP and their own electoral standing than defending Trump himself. And none of them are up for reelection in 2020 in swing states, so they are probably looking more at the broader landscape for Republicans than their own reelection prospects.
I don’t see them breaking with Trump unless it’s very politically expedient. Let’s say, at some point, 75 percent of Americans support Trump’s removal, including 35 or 40 percent of Republicans. This is the bloc of Republicans that I think would go to the White House and urge Trump to step down. They would be the most potent messengers in such a situation — they rarely attack Trump and so can’t be written off as “Never-Trumpers,” as the president’s allies have cast Romney. More importantly, if this group broke with Trump, there would be the numbers to actually remove him from office. (Again, though, that all seems very unlikely right now.)
Always Trumpers: 8 Republicans
These Republicans — Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Mike Braun of Indiana, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue of Georgia3 and Rick Scott of Florida — either rose to power post-Trump or are closely allied with the president on immigration issues in particular (Cotton and Perdue). I don’t think they will ever, ever break with the president. If Trump’s political standing worsens, Loeffler and Perdue would be making a somewhat risky move in sticking by him because they represent swingy Georgia (and both are on the ballot in 2020), but I still don’t see any circumstances in which they break with the president. Or, put slightly more cautiously, this group of Republicans would be Trump’s last defenders.
There are a lot of competing incentives at work in the Senate regarding impeachment. The way it all shakes out, however, is that the removal vote is at about 56-44 in Trump’s favor. That could, of course, change based on additional evidence emerging, public opinion shifting and Republican senators changing their minds. But right now, it’s just hard to see the Senate trial of Trump taking place with any real chance that 67 senators will support removing him from office.