Swing-district Democrats gamble that voters will follow them on impeachment

Trump call to Ukrainian president moved moderate members, but voters not there yet, one poll found

House Democratic freshman, from left, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey had held back from endorsing an impeachment inquiry until reports of President Donald Trump’s conversation with the president of Ukraine came to light. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Democratic freshman, from left, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Elissa Slotkin of Michigan and Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey had held back from endorsing an impeachment inquiry until reports of President Donald Trump’s conversation with the president of Ukraine came to light. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 25, 2019 at 6:00am

Several House members in crucial swing districts rolled the dice this week by supporting an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, betting voters will eventually agree that such an inquiry is the best path forward.

The support from members whose victories helped flip the House from red to blue last year may have spurred Speaker Nancy Pelosi to apply the impeachment description Tuesday to ongoing investigations.

Yet Democratic strategists and lawmakers admit they do not yet know whether reports about Trump’s July conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — in which he allegedly asked Ukraine to investigate corruption claims that could damage former Vice President Joe Biden after holding up congressionally approved military aid to the country — have convinced more voters to favor impeachment.

“There’s people who call my office pushing for impeachment. There’s people who call my office saying, ‘Please don’t drag us into this,’” Michigan Rep. Elissa Slotkin told reporters Tuesday, explaining her decision to co-author a Washington Post op-ed with six other vulnerable freshman Democrats endorsing “impeachment hearings.”

“It wasn’t that I read the tea leaves in my district, it’s that the specter of this particular set of incidents crossed the Rubicon for me on a national security issue, on a constitutional issue,“ Slotkin said.

Virginia Rep. Elaine Luria, another op-ed co-author, said that of the 30 calls her offices had received on the issue since publication, 23 were positive.

So far this week, Slotkin and Luria have been joined in their new positions by moderate Democratic freshmen Dean Phillips of Minnesota, Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey, Haley Stevens of Michigan, Gil Cisneros of California, Jason Crow of Colorado, and Antonio Delgado of New York, among others.

Six of them — Slotkin, Luria, Spanberger, Sherrill, Stevens and Delgado — represent districts Trump won in 2016. 

The Democrats largely avoided impeachment chatter on the campaign trail in 2018, and now have to walk their constituents through the nuances of the process and explain that endorsing an inquiry is not tantamount to a vote to actually impeach him.

“What we haven’t seen yet is Democrat attempts to sell impeachment to the general public. It’s very much been a debate inside the party,” said Ian Russell, a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee political director. “Swing-district members will have to try to bring their voters along with them because once this goes, it becomes an all-consuming issue.”

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Why now?

Swing-district Democrats must also account for why their stance has evolved since a whistleblower complaint filed with the Director of National Intelligence inspector general came to light last week.

Many of those Democrats resisted calls earlier this year for an impeachment inquiry  after former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III released his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Democrats have argued that Trump has not learned his lesson from 2016 improprieties and has solicited help from a foreign country for a future election.

Trump’s alleged request of Zelenskiy was “prospective, not retrospective,” Slotkin said Tuesday.

“It’s talking about 2020 and the potential use of dirt from a foreigner in 2020. And those things just made it, for me, beyond the pale,” she said.

Implications vary

In Virginia, both Spanberger and Luria have been caught in the middle between groups who voted for them but have different views on impeachment. There’s a liberal base urging them to do it, while a bloc of independent, Republican-leaning voters oppose it.

“Voters in my district sent me here to do what was right. I spent 20 years in the Navy making hard decisions, commanded a combat unit. I’m paid to be a member of Congress and make hard decisions,” said Luria, whose district backed Trump by 3 points in 2016.

In New Jersey, where Sherrill was one of four Democrats whose wins last year left the state with just one Republican in its 12-member House delegation, Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray said a new state survey set to be released Wednesday, done before news broke about Trump’s call with Ukraine, showed independent voters  do not favor impeachment.

“Furthermore, there’s a net negative impact on how [independents] would view their own member of Congress if they voted in favor of impeachment,” Murray said.

“Independent opposition to impeachment doesn’t necessarily mean that they support Trump or approve of him. But they see an election around the corner where Trump can be ousted, and they sent these members to Congress to work on bread-and-butter issues, not to impeach Trump,” Murray said.

Fundraising on both sides

In a sign both parties see a political upside, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday used Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement of an impeachment inquiry to raise money for 2020.

GOP Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who could face a competitive reelection next year, sent a fundraising email deriding Democrats for continuing a “witch hunt” against the president “that has failed time and time again.”

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race for Cornyn’s seat Likely Republican.

Democrats such as Sherrill also sent out a fundraising e-blast to supporters Tuesday. Hers explained her endorsement of impeachment hearings and stressing that she has “not come to this conclusion lightly.”

Not all Democrats …

Despite the flurry of Democratic moderates calling for an impeachment process to commence this week, some have held out.

Reps. Max Rose and Anthony Brindisi of New York and Jared Golden of Maine are three such Democratic freshman — all from Trump districts — who have continued to resist impeachment proceedings.

Minnesota Rep. Colin Peterson, a top GOP target in a district Trump carried by more than 30 points in 2016, continued to express doubt that impeaching the president without support from his GOP colleagues was a winning strategy for Democrats.

“If anyone thinks a partisan impeachment process would constrain President Trump, they are fooling themselves,” said Peterson, now the only Democrat in the Minnesota delegation who does not support an impeachment inquiry.

Bridget Bowman, Simone Pathé, Katherine Tully-McManus and Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.