'One place left to hold him accountable': Trump acquittal raises stakes for Democrats

Some of the president's critics worry that their field of candidates isn't up to beating him with New Hampshire's primary days away.

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By Alex Seitz-Wald and Sahil Kapur

CONCORD, N.H. — Donald Trump has survived impeachment, a federal investigation and three years of near-constant legal and in-the-streets resistance, raising the stakes of this year's election on what Democrats see as the last real check on the president's power.

With the Senate's votes Wednesday to acquit the president of impeachment charges brought against him by the Democratic House, Trump's opponents have shot all of the most powerful arrows in their quiver save one — the voters.

Both parties argue that the outcome of the monthslong impeachment saga will play to their advantage this fall.

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And while impeachment has barely registered as an issue in the Democratic presidential primary season, as the candidates were united in favor of removal, the acquittal votes are motivators in the partisanship that is fueling near-record enthusiasm about the general election.

"There's only one place left to hold him accountable, and that's in November," said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I.

The events put Trump in uncharted waters as an impeached president poised to face voters again in a general election.

In a new Economist/YouGov poll before the acquittal votes, Americans said by 48 percent to 31 percent that they believe Trump deliberately withheld military aid to Ukraine to push the country to investigate the Biden family. Independents agreed by 41 percent to 30 percent. Pluralities of Americans also said they believe the president has obstructed congressional inquiries, while the country was statistically tied on whether Congress should remove him from office.

"If voters believe Trump did something wrong and just got off on partisan grounds, that can become a real hurdle for him," said Neera Tanden, president of the influential liberal think tank Center For American Progress.

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She said Democratic nominee Al Gore was hurt in 2000 by the fact that President Bill Clinton suffered no punishment for his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which led to impeachment and his acquittal in 1999.

"The Gore campaign faced hurdles from the fact that Bill Clinton basically got off unscathed," Tanden said. "A majority never wanted him removed from office. But ... the fact that he faced no punishment at all didn't sit well with the public, either."

Trump's approval rating has ticked up in some recent polls, and some Democratic voters in New Hampshire, which holds its first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday, worry that their field of candidates isn't up to the task of beating the president.

"There's really no candidate they have that's going to be able to take Trump on head to head," said Mark Feraco, 58, of Milford, who came to see Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Tuesday but hopes former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wins the nomination because he "can play in the dirt with Trump."

"The problem is that Trump has gotten more emboldened with his time in office," Feraco added. "He's gotten smarter politically."

Steve Rosseel, a Realtor in New Hampshire, said he fears that the party's two top national candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders, aren't strong enough to defeat Trump.

"I like Joe. I'm just concerned that — I think too many people are going to look at Joe and Trump and say, 'I'll just stick with Trump,'" Rosseel said, adding that the "socialism" label associated with Sanders could compromise him in a general election. He's leaning toward supporting Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in the primary next week but is also considering Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Last week in Iowa, Trump drew a larger crowd on a visit to Des Moines than any Democratic candidate had in a year of campaign events ahead of Monday's chaos caucuses.

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Democratic contenders are pleading with voters to punish Trump at the ballot box.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told a crowd at the Bagel Mill Cafe and Bakery in Peterborough that voters could soon "prove that their loyalty to a single person is higher than their loyalty to the Constitution of the United States."

"That ... is why we all need to be in this fight and get out there and vote," she said.

Meanwhile, Trump allies took a victory lap, portraying the acquittal as a vindication against the "witch hunts" they say he has suffered through, arguing that voters will see that Democrats have nothing to offer.

"We couldn't have scripted it any better," top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said. "It's their problem, but America sees that."

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is senior digital politics reporter for NBC News.

Sahil Kapur

Sahil Kapur is a national political reporter for NBC News.