WASHINGTON — The outcome of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial may be a foregone conclusion, but its handling could affect Republican senators who will share a ballot with him in November.
Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Nebraska’s Ben Sasse are both seeking their second terms in 2020. Both have criticized the House Democrats presenting the case against Trump and voted repeatedly with their fellow GOP senators this week against efforts to seek new witnesses and documents.
Democrats say those votes could help swing competitive races in purple states such as Ernst’s and cite polls in which Americans favor additional witnesses and documents.
“The question is — will our Republican colleagues rise to their constitutional mandate to create a fair trial, and I don’t think it will sit very well with history or with the American people if they don’t,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday. “Everyone here who’s elected has some duty to listen to their constituents. Their constituents are saying witnesses and documents.”
But Ernst was defiant when asked about the prospect of Democrats making impeachment an issue in her race, saying that they can “bring it on” and that the people she represents are more interested in trade deals such as the U.S.-Canada-Mexico Agreement than the ongoing trial.
“I don’t think constituents in Iowa are watching it now, honest to goodness,” Ernst said. “They’re thrilled that we got USMCA done. They want us to continue working on the business that’s important to them.”
The impeachment case revolves around efforts to pressure Ukraine into launching two investigations Trump wanted: one into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son and another into a conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, behind 2016 presidential election interference. Hanging in the balance was U.S. military aid and a crucial relationship to Ukraine as it faced down Russia.
President Trump asked for the investigations during a call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to an rough summary of the call.
When the administration first released that call summary, Sasse told The World-Herald there was “terrible stuff” in it and that Republicans shouldn’t reflexively circle the wagons to justify it.
He also criticized Democrats for what he characterized as a rush to impeachment.
Since then, Sasse has repeated his criticism of Democrats such as Rep. Adam Schiff of California, reliably employing the phrase “clown show” over and over.
But he’s been mum about the stream of revelations regarding the Ukraine pressure campaign and declined interview requests about the matter.
Sasse spokesman James Wegmann said in a statement that Sasse is one of the most conservative members of the Senate and that that will earn him a second term.
“Ben isn’t thinking about politics during Adam Schiff’s clown show — he’s doing his job by listening and taking notes, even when Schiff repeats himself over and over and over again,” Wegmann said.
Sasse’s GOP primary opponent Matt Innis has made the senator’s previous criticism of Trump a central rationale of his campaign. The Lancaster County businessman says Sasse characterizing Trump as unfit for office during the 2016 presidential campaign contributed to Democrats’ impeachment efforts. Innis also faulted Sasse for his initial reaction to the Ukraine call.
“Ben Sasse needs to publicly reject this charade of impeachment that liberal Democrats, ‘never-Trumpers’ and the national media are conducting against President Trump,” Innis said.
Trump has endorsed Sasse’s reelection, rendering Innis’ primary challenge the longest of shots. But, of course, Trump could always retract that endorsement if Sasse did something to upset him during the trial.
John Hibbing, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said that despite his past criticisms of Trump, it would be surprising if Sasse sides with Democrats.
Hibbing added that he doesn’t expect that position to endanger Sasse’s prospects in the general election.
“He won 2-1 six years ago and I just can’t see him screwing up enough to really jeopardize that,” Hibbing said.
For her part, Ernst made clear this week that she has not found the Democrats’ case to be compelling.
“I’m still waiting to see that overwhelming evidence,” Ernst said.
Democrats have highlighted such statements as reason why Republicans should back new witnesses to provide additional links between Trump and the pressure campaign — witnesses like John Bolton, the former national security adviser who says he’s willing to testify.
Ernst rejected that argument and said if the case isn’t complete, that’s on the Democrats.
“They should have done a better job in the House,” Ernst said.
Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University, said Ernst is considered a potentially vulnerable incumbent in part because she’s facing her sophomore campaign, which can be tough in a swing state.
But Goldford noted that Democrats haven’t settled on a challenger to Ernst and while impeachment could drive up voter turnout, it remains to be seen which side will be more motivated by it.
Voters who want Ernst to oppose the president will likely vote against her regardless of what she does on impeachment, he said.
“You know that old phrase, ‘You dance with the one who brung ya?’ ” Goldford said. “I think that’s certainly what Joni Ernst is going to do.”
Photos: Nebraska’s and Iowa’s members of Congress