CNN  — 

Sometime shortly after President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States on Wednesday, the Senate will likely begin the impeachment trial of soon-to-be-former President Donald Trump.

A number of Republican senators – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – have signaled they have yet to decide whether Trump deserves to be convicted of incitement regarding the January 6 riot at the US Capitol. 

But McConnell’s home-state colleague thinks that is a very bad idea – and could lead to the collapse of the Republican Party.

01 rand paul FILE

“I didn’t agree with the fight that happened last week, and I voted against overturning the election,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said in an interview on Fox News Friday night. “But at the same time, the impeachment is a wrongheaded, partisan notion. But if Republicans go along with it, it will destroy the party. A third of the Republicans will leave the party.” 

Which is a pretty big claim! And if Paul is right, massively raises the stakes for the coming Senate trial and eventual vote to acquit or convict Trump.

Here’s what we know: In order for Trump to be convicted, 67 senators – a supermajority – would have to vote that way. Which means that 17 GOP senators in the new Congress – where Democrats and Republicans each control 50 seats – would have to vote to convict.

At the moment, that looks unlikely, given that no Republican senator has announced that he or she will vote to convict.

But there’s no question that McConnell is the linchpin here. If he votes to convict, he gives broad cover for lots of other wavering Republican senators to do so. And there’s also no question that the Kentucky senator is at least considering the possibility of voting to convict Trump.

“I have not made a final decision on how I will vote and I intend to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate,” McConnell said in a decidedly leave-the-door-open statement issued shortly after the House impeached Trump last week.

McConnell is faced with a stark political choice. He is clearly fed up with Trump and believes the outgoing President represents a clear and present danger to the future of the GOP. Casting a vote to convict Trump – or being part of a Republican rebellion that led to the President’s conviction – would allow McConnell a very clean break with the 45th president.

On the other hand, Paul isn’t wrong about the impact such a vote might have within the GOP.  It would almost certainly further splinter the Republican Party between the so-called “establishment” and the Trump wing.

And that sort of fracture would make it very difficult for Republicans to win national elections or take back the House and Senate majorities.

The Point: The fight for what the post-Trump Republican Party looks and acts like is on. The coming Senate trial will be the first major battle in the broader war.