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Why are Republicans silent about the Ukraine whistleblower scandal? This one chart explains.

Comparing the political fortunes of Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake tells you a lot.

- September 24, 2019

Reports surfaced last week that President Trump allegedly pressured the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to reopen a corruption investigation involving former vice president Joe Biden’s son. The details of the exchange, which purportedly included “a promise” to the foreign leader, were reportedly so alarming that a U.S. intelligence official who worked at the White House filed a whistleblower complaint with the inspector general of the intelligence community.

Trump’s alleged pressing of a foreign government into helping him against a political rival has renewed calls for the president’s impeachment. In an opinion column for The Washington Post, legal scholars George Conway and Neal Katyal even described Trump’s alleged behavior as “the ultimate impeachable act.”

But most Republicans have responded to the Ukraine whistleblower scandal with silence and defiance. Even though Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have each admitted to discussing the Biden investigation with the Ukraine, few Republican lawmakers have even expressed concern over Trump’s behavior. That response, or lack thereof, from Republicans has prompted outrage. As the American Enterprise Institute’s resident scholar, Norman Ornstein, tweeted:

Anyone expecting harsher criticism from Republicans, though, need only look at the political fortunes of Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). Both GOP senators strongly criticized Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign; both expected him to easily lose the election to Hillary Clinton.

Graham famously tweeted, “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed ……. and we will deserve it.” Flake similarly stated that he didn’t think Trump could or should win the election.

But after Trump won, the two men adopted dramatically different stances toward the president. Flake continued his outspoken opposition to Trump; Graham became one of his closest allies.

Those divergent paths had profound effects on the two senators’ popularity with home-state Republicans, as you can see in the figure below.

Lindsay Graham's approval rating among Republicans recovered. Jeff Flake's didn't. -- Percent of Republicans approving minus the percent disapproving

The figure above shows Republicans’ net approval (percent approve minus percent disapprove) of Flake in Arizona and Graham in South Carolina from 2014 to 2018. In the 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Survey (CCES), both senators were relatively popular among fellow partisans in their home states.

Their popularity among Republicans, however, plummeted as they both criticized Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. Only about one-third of Republicans in South Carolina and Arizona, respectively, approved of Graham and Flake in the 2016 CCES.

As you can see in that figure, Flake’s continued clashes with Trump made him even less popular with his party immediately before the 2018 midterms — and ultimately forced him out of the Senate. He announced his retirement in 2017, acknowledging that he couldn’t win a Republican primary without cozying up to Trump.

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Meanwhile, the same graph shows Graham’s popularity with South Carolina Republicans reached new heights after he embraced Trump and emotionally defended Brett M. Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination in September 2018. In fact, recent polling shows Graham with 67 percentage points among Republican voters in South Carolina for the 2020 Republican primary election for Senate.

It’s hardly a surprise, then, why Republicans have turned a blind eye to the president’s alleged misconduct. As long as politicians prize power and popularity more than principles, few Republicans will condemn Trump heading into an election year, no matter how serious the alleged transgression.

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