President Trump’s impeachment trial is putting a spotlight on two vulnerable GOP senators whose reelection races this year could determine which party controls the Senate.
Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine are both under intense scrutiny for how they act while the chamber considers whether to remove Trump from office for the charges of withholding aid to Ukraine for political purposes and obstructing the House’s investigation into the matter.
In particular, it remains to be seen whether they join Democrats in calling witnesses such as Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton or introducing new evidence including text messages involving Lev Parnas, a former associate of Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
And whether they decide to vote for conviction or acquittal will help define how Democrats run against them ahead of November.
The races are among the most likely to flip their seats to Democrats, and both have potential impacts on energy and environment policy.
Gardner ran in 2014 as a moderate who supports clean energy, but he has become a fierce defender of the oil and natural gas industry that’s a major part of Colorado’s economy. He also has claimed credit for the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters move to Grand Junction, Colo.
Collins has even more of an independent streak, not just on environmental issues but also on abortion rights, immigration and other areas. She has consistently been the most moderate Republican senator on climate change.
With Republicans holding 53 of the Senate’s 100 seats, losses by Gardner and Collins would put the GOP very close to losing the majority.
Whatever Gardner and Collins do, Trump is nearly guaranteed to avoid being removed from office. Two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 senators, would need to vote for his ouster. Experts believe this is highly unlikely.
Other senators up for reelection this year, including Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), have similar odds of losing their seats to the opposite party.
But Gardner and Collins stand out for how noncommittal they have been on the impeachment issue and how much pressure and scrutiny they’re receiving.
Both have gone to great lengths to avoid substantive comments on the accusations against Trump. They’ve also been noncommittal on more specific matters, like whether Parnas’ recent interview on MSNBC’s "Rachel Maddow Show" and the documents he gave to House Democrats mean the Senate should call witnesses or introduce new evidence to the trial.
"We have a trial, and that’s where we’re at right now. I take my impartiality duties seriously," Gardner told Marshall Zelinger, a reporter with Denver’s 9News, on Thursday in response to a question about potential witnesses.
"We have a trial, and I’m sure that’ll be part of the discussion," he said of a new Government Accountability Office report concluding that Trump’s actions in holding back the Ukraine aid were illegal.
Dick Wadhams, a Colorado Republican strategist, told The Denver Post it may be more dangerous for Gardner to oppose the president. Josh Penry (R), a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate, told the paper that either way, Democrats would oppose the senator.
Wadhams said, "If [Gardner] does anything that turns off the Trump base in Colorado, that’s more dangerous than anything from the other side. I’m not sure impeachment complicates things any more for Cory."
Collins seemed cool to the idea of new evidence last week, including Parnas’ records. Those records, among other revelations, bolster the claim that Parnas was working at Trump’s direction when he tried to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open a corruption investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President and current Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
"I wonder why the House did not put that into the record and it’s only now being revealed," she said Wednesday, asking whether the fact that the records were not released during the House’s impeachment process shows that chamber "did an incomplete job."
But the next day, Collins published a statement that made her seem more open to new evidence. She said the Senate "should have an up-or-down vote on whether to subpoena witnesses and documents," and "I tend to believe having additional information would be helpful."
Sandy Maisel, a professor of American government at Colby College, told the Portland, Maine, Press Herald that Collins’ votes will be defining.
"She may vote to allow witnesses and then vote not to [convict]. She has to think about whether splitting that vote will alienate people or please people."
‘Party politics first’
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is working to replace Gardner and Collins with Democrats, is trying to use nearly everything the two say about impeachment against them.
"A trial that excludes relevant documents and blocks testimony from witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the president’s abuse of power is a partisan cover-up, not a thorough hearing of the facts," DSCC spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said in a statement.
"It’s time for Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans to stop putting party politics first and carry out their Constitutional duty by committing to a fair trial," she said.
Asked about how the impeachment trial could impact Senate races, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said it’s critical for every senator to work like an effective juror, without mentioning any names.
"When it comes to the importance of getting witnesses, relevant fact witnesses and relevant documents, on that question, the overwhelming majority of the American people recognize that a fair trial is necessary. So senators that don’t want to look at the evidence will have to explain to their constituents why they want to rig the trial," said Van Hollen, who served as chairman of the DSCC in the 2018 election cycle.
A Morning Consult poll released last week found 40% of respondents rated Gardner negatively compared with 37% who were positive.
Collins, perhaps having angered people on both sides through her moderate positions, which aren’t always against Trump but also don’t embrace him, had a 52% unfavorable rating.
Morning Consult said it was surveying 5,000 people on a daily basis and releasing senator favorability data quarterly.