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An ‘obvious trap’? Democrats weigh political cost of impeachment

Vulnerable Democrats may be more open to impeachment but aren’t ready to go there yet

Democrat strategists who’ve worked on competitive House races largely agree that impeachment is a losing issue for the party trying to hold the House in 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Congressional Democrats have a decision to make: Where are they going on impeachment, and at what political cost?

A group that has been pushing since 2017 for President Donald Trump’s impeachment will be airing ads this weekend in Iowa and New Hampshire urging Democratic leaders to take action. 

But many Democrats, including a past chairman of the party committee focused on winning and holding control of the House, say it is not where the voters want them to go and could backfire in 2020, much as the impeachment and acquittal of President Bill Clinton once hurt Republicans.

After last fall’s historic midterm gains, Democrats control 31 seats in districts President Donald Trump carried in 2016, and they need to win them again next year to keep their majority. It’s hard to find any Democratic strategist involved in competitive House races who thinks impeachment would help that effort.

Democrats have talked repeatedly about how health care and the economy helped them win in 2018, and how that’s their winning message heading into 2020. But while he wasn’t on the ballot, Trump was a powerful backdrop last fall, and many Democrats flipped GOP seats by offering to be a check on the executive branch.

So as more and more rank-and-file members come out in support of beginning an impeachment inquiry, is there a point at which vulnerable lawmakers also feel they need to move that way?

It may depend on the district, and why voters there elected Democrats. A big concern remains that by pursuing impeachment — which only 39 percent of voters support nationally, according to a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday — they’re not getting other things done.

Moving toward impeachment?

Freshman Democrat Katie Hill, who flipped a Southern California seat last fall, said she and other “Frontliners” — the group of 44 lawmakers whom the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has classified as vulnerable— are on the fence, but not because of concerns about re-election.

“Many of us are hitting a point where we feel like what is morally right, and what is within our personal obligation, is more important than what might end up happening within the voters’ perspectives,” she said.

She wants to see how court challenges to administration actions go before moving toward impeachment, and doesn’t feel that Congress needs impeachment to exercise its oversight rights. But the responsibility of the decision is weighing on some members.

“This is a moment in history where we’re going to be looked back on and how we acted,” said Hill, whose district Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. 

Even Democrats in Trump districts who ran on health care and the economy are still very concerned about oversight.

“I generally reject the notion that districts like mine don’t believe in the rule of law and constitutional values,” said Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who ousted Republican incumbent Dave Brat last fall in a seat Trump carried by 7 points.

At a town hall last weekend, New Jersey Rep. Mikie Sherrill heard a lot about the issues she ran on — health care, funding for a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and lifting the cap on state and local tax deductions.

“While at the same time,” she said Wednesday, “people are concerned about Congress standing up as a co-equal branch of government.”

Vulnerable Democratic freshmen coming out of a Wednesday caucus meeting tended to deny that politics was part of the calculus over starting impeachment proceedings, arguing it was about obtaining the facts.

But that they feel the need to downplay the politics only reinforces how political the discussion is.

“To say there’s no political calculus would not be honest for any of us in the Congress,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Tuesday.

After surviving competitive elections last fall, many new members expect to be attacked for backing people and proposals they don’t actually support. Many of them experienced that with ads that tied them to Nancy Pelosi last cycle, and they’ve encountered that phenomenon early this cycle with Republicans trying to tie all Democrats to socialism and the Green New Deal.

So one argument for supporting impeachment is simply that if they’re going to be tarred with it anyway, why not? Already, national Republicans aren’t making any effort to distinguish between members and where they fall on the issue.

“The socialist Democrats’ irresistible urge to touch the hot stove will decimate their electoral chances,” Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement.

With leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus coming out for impeachment, for example, national Republicans are likely to use that against vulnerable CPC members, such as New Jersey’s Andy Kim or Minnesota’s Angie Craig.

Democrats are also facing pressure from their own party to launch impeachment proceedings. Need to Impeach, a group billionaire Tom Steyer launched shortly after Trump took office, is running cable ads through the weekend in Iowa and New Hampshire calling for action.

“We think Democrats in Congress need to recognize that their base turned out because of Trump, and they’re expecting Democrats to hold him accountable,” the group’s spokesman Will Simmons said. Impeachment opponents, however, say the Democratic base will be plenty energized with Trump on the ballot.

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‘An obvious trap’

Arguments to begin impeachment proceedings have so far not changed the minds of Democrats who believe it would be a political loser.

“The majority of voters in [GOP-leaning] districts don’t favor a divisive impeachment process that’s going to pull apart the country,” said former New York Rep. Steve Israel, who chaired the DCCC in the 2012 and 2014 cycles.

Democrats are adamant that voters are still focused on issues that affect their daily lives, with Israel fearing that impeachment would be a distraction from the economic and social issues that matter to swing voters.

In April, before special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s redacted report was released, the DCCC conducted focus groups with swing voters in Maine, Michigan and California. Health care and lowering prescription drug prices were top priorities for those voters, along with addressing partisanship and gridlock in Washington. Mueller’s probe and related investigations were low priorities.

In Wednesday’s Monmouth poll, 52 percent of respondents said Congress should move on to other issues now that the Mueller investigation is over.

Drawing vulnerable Democrats into an impeachment proceeding that, as of now, has the support of only one Republican, Michigan Rep. Justin Amash, runs the risk of linking the Democrats to the very thing they ran against in 2018: hyperpartisanship in Washington.

“It will say to the American people that our swing-district Democrats will have become part of the problem,” said Ian Russell, a former DCCC political director. “They did not run on impeachment. They ran on protecting and expanding health care coverage, lowering prescription drug prices.”

Democrats also say that impeachment proceedings would energize Republicans ahead of 2020.

“This is such an obvious trap from the White House,” Russell said. “They know that it will unite Republicans and divide Democrats.”

Those concerns came up at Wednesday morning’s Democratic Caucus meeting.

“I do worry that if we move to impeachment, it’s going to make it harder, not easier, for us to beat the president,” Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes said, according to a source in the room. California Rep. Ro Khanna, the first vice chair of the Progressive Caucus, added that impeaching Trump would “further tear this country apart.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of nearly two dozen Democrats competing to take on Trump in 2020, said Wednesday that the president could benefit politically from impeachment proceedings, suggesting on CNN that he actually wants to be impeached.

Trump was already trying to use the impeachment threat to strengthen his bargaining positions and claim the high ground Wednesday, putting the onus on Democrats to stop the ongoing investigations before he would work with them on areas of bipartisan interest, such as infrastructure.

Democrats against impeachment aren’t saying that investigations should stop. Israel noted that focus groups and surveys conducted during the 2014 and 2016 cycles showed voters did not reject GOP-led investigations into the Obama administration. But impeachment, Israel said, is where voters tend to draw a line.

For now, most congressional Democrats agree that their investigations should continue.

Sherrill, a former federal prosecutor, responded to a question about impeachment by saying she wanted Mueller to testify. That’s a much more politically popular position, supported by 73 percent of those polled by Monmouth.

Pelosi also wants to keep the focus on the ongoing investigations.

“I’m not sure that we get any more information by initiating an impeachment inquiry,” she said Wednesday.

Lindsey McPherson and Katherine Tully-McManus contributed to this report.

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