As House Democrats roll out an official impeachment inquiry into President Trump, Republicans seeking re-election -- including Colorado's U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner -- face a choice: Defend Trump and risk going down with the ship, or watch from a safe distance and risk losing Republican votes.
The stakes are high. In the Senate, where control carries the power to conﬁrm presidential nominees, the success of GOP campaigns could dramatically affect Trump’s second term or the beginning of a Democratic administration.
On Tuesday, Need to Impeach -- a pro-impeachment political group backed by billionaire presidential candidate Tom Steyer -- said it was launching a $3 million-plus TV and digital advertising campaign targeting Gardner along with three other GOP senators aimed at "pressuring Senate Republicans on impeachment and their commitment to the U.S. Constitution," the group said in a statement.
"More than half of the $3 million investment will go into TV advertising in major markets within each senators’ respective states, including heavy investments into local Fox News stations," the statement said. "The other half will be spent on digital ads in these states."
Also being targeted by Need to Impeach's ads are Republican U.S. Sens. Martha McSally of Arizona, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Susan Collins of Maine, all seeking re-election next year.
In Republican-leaning states, vulnerable GOP senators used House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s unfurling of impeachment proceedings to attack Democrats. In states that voted against Trump in 2016, such as Colorado, senators were more cautious.
There was a loose parallel in 1998 when President Bill Clinton’s looming impeachment was a central issue. It is credited with boosting Clinton’s popularity but resulted in no net change in the Senate.
“It did affect a few seats, [but] now, more than 21 years ago is going to depend on the particular district,” said former Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, the Republican who introduced articles of impeachment against Clinton before serving as a manager of proceedings in late 1998.
The four most vulnerable Republicans have split in approach after Pelosi agreed to move on impeachment over Trump asking Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
McSally -- who was appointed to her seat after losing an election to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema -- mocked Democrats, saying they are “on a path to re-elect the president.”
Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina accused his Democratic challengers of wanting to “throw [Trump] in jail without any justiﬁcation.”
But in more Democratic-leaning states, Gardner and Collins were judicious.
Gardner said Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was a “serious issue” and side-stepped whether he supported Trump’s re-election, telling a reporter, “Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
Before a transcript of Trump’s comments was released, Collins said she would “wait until I know what really was said.”
Jesse Benton, who in 2014 was the campaign manager for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, said senators vary in approach but that polls show impeachment has not gained majority support.
“Not every Republican needs to be out front in the Defend Trump vanguard, but at the end of the day, Republicans who want a chance to be re-elected will be against impeachment,” Benton said.
“Independent Americans don’t want impeachment, and the powerful Trump base will eat them alive,” Benton said. “[Former Arizona senator and Trump critic] Jeff Flake has a nice life these days as a paid speaker and media darling, but the political careers of any pro-impeachment Republi-cans will be over as his.”
Republican strategist Alice Stewart said the Mueller report’s ﬁnding that Trump did not conspire with Russia to hack Democratic emails allows Republican candidates more ﬂexibility in messaging.
“All Republicans should be supportive of getting all of the information out there,” Stewart said. She said it’s helpful for Republicans to say the Mueller report turned out to be “a dud” after “everyone lit their hair on ﬁre” with concerns of collusion.
Democrats cited the Mueller report’s analysis on Trump potentially obstructing justice during its investigation as potential grounds for impeachment.
Michael Steel, a former senior lieutenant to then-House Speaker John Boehner, said if damning facts emerge about Trump, the calculation could change, but that for now, Republicans can avoid getting in the weeds.
“I think all Republicans should be interested in getting all the facts out, but it is up to Washington Democrats to make a compelling case to the American people about the need for impeachment. Thus far, based on the polls, they certainly have not done that,” Steel said.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led Republicans who impeached Clinton, said Republicans should reframe the debate to focus on Biden, who Trump accused of pressuring Ukraine’s government to ﬁre a prosecutor investigating his son Hunter’s employer.
“It’s very simple: They should ﬁle for a parallel investigation of Hunter Biden in both China and Ukraine and of Vice President Biden’s role in those relationships,” Gingrich said. “I just think the Republican position ought to be, if you want to look at pressure being brought on Ukraine, you have to look at Biden as well as Trump.”
Mark Harden of Colorado Politics contributed.