Where GOP support for Trump is weakest
Party loyalty—and, by extension, loyalty to the president of one’s party—is a powerful force on Capitol Hill. Thus, the safe bet is that few if any congressional Republicans will cast ballots to impeach President Trump. That should protect the president from removal by the GOP-led Senate, and even if House Democrats pass articles of impeachment, it would (as Greg Koger has noted) give proof to Trump's claim that impeachment is a partisan “witch hunt.”
As I have written previously, however, the politics of impeachment are highly uncertain. It is possible for lawmakers, even members of the president’s party, to revise their opinions as circumstances change. The dubious decision (later reversed) to host the next G7 summit at one of Trump’s own properties, and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s disastrous press conference last Thursday, have led more congressional Republicans to openly question the White House’s judgment, if not the president’s fitness to serve.
Even before these latest developments, Republicans in the House of Representatives have had multiple opportunities to demonstrate how committed they are to defending the president and opposing the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. And on two occasions in particular, certain GOP legislators have shown less eagerness to stand with Trump.
The first occasion was last week’s passage of a House joint resolution that criticized the president for unilaterally withdrawing troops from northern Syria. 129 Republican lawmakers, a whopping two-thirds of the Conference, voted for the measure, along with every Democrat who cast a ballot.
Although no one is expecting Trump to be impeached on this particular foreign policy decision, it is unusual for so many lawmakers to openly rebuke a same-party president. (Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell criticized the decision in a Washington Post editorial.) It also bodes ill for a Chief Executive who needs all the congressional allies he can get.
What explains the likelihood of a Republican voting with Democrats to criticize the president? Using regression analysis, I tested a number of possible explanatory factors.
The results (shown below) reveal that, perhaps unsurprisingly, lawmakers from more pro-Trump districts (measured by the percent of the district vote received by Trump in 2016) were less likely to vote in favor of the resolution. This mirrors a similar finding by Sarah Binder that lawmakers from more Republican districts tended to vote against the resolution.
Trump appears to have less support from congressional Republicans
who have served longer or are in leadership --
not just those from swing districts.
Lawmakers retiring from Congress—and thus immune from fears of a backlash by Trump voters—were also more likely to support the resolution. In fact, every retiring GOP lawmaker voted for it. (This meant that a variable measuring whether a lawmaker was retiring from Congress could not be included in the analysis).
But district partisanship and retirement status were not the only factors that helped explain vote choice. Republicans who have served longer in the House were also more willing to vote against the president. The same was also true of ranking committee members and party leaders.
Furthermore, while the substantive effects of district vote for Trump was quite large (as can be seen in the chart below), non-electoral variables had sizeable effects as well. Serving in leadership increased the probability of voting for the resolution from 68% to 92%. The probability that lawmakers in their tenth term would vote in favor was eighteen percentage points greater than those serving in their first term.
A strikingly similar pattern emerged when analyzing a different resolution—one more directly related to impeachment. Introduced by Freedom Caucus member Andy Biggs (R-AZ), H. Res. 604 calls for the public censure of Adam Schiff (D-CA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for a variety of alleged misdoings.
Though the resolution has not, as of this writing, come to the House floor for a vote, by October 17 over 140 congressional Republicans had registered their opposition to impeachment by cosponsoring it. This means that some 30% of the House GOP chose not take the easy step of expressing public disdain for impeachment by cosponsoring the resolution. Why not?
Using regression analysis (results below), one finds many of the same factors that explain the Syria vote also explain reluctance to cosponsor Biggs’ resolution. These include representing a less Trump-friendly district; having been in Congress longer; not being a member of the Freedom Caucus; or serving in party leadership. (The party leadership variable was dropped because not a single party leader had cosponsored the resolution.) Planned retirement from Congress did not have a statistically significant effect, nor did membership on the Intelligence Committee or being a ranking committee member.
The takeaway is that unhappiness with Trump within the Republican Party may be grounded in other than just voter sentiment. Even Republicans from pro-Trump districts could be disposed to cross the White House, or unwilling to attack the impeachment process, if they have been in Congress for a while or serve in a party or committee leadership post.
This does not mean that Republicans in Congress are about to abandon the president. The politics of the moment are still very much in flux, and the aforementioned resolutions are, at best, only indirect measures of sentiment towards impeachment. (It would be especially peculiar if GOP leaders in the House came out in favor of removing Trump from office.)
Nonetheless, these resolutions do hint that congressional opposition to Trump is not strictly a partisan affair. And that opposition may be broader within the GOP than a district-based view of legislator behavior would suggest.