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Meet the two Democrats who broke with their party on impeachment

Collin Peterson and Jeff Van Drew represent districts Trump carried by very different margins

Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson was one of just two Democrats who voted against Democrats’ impeachment resolution in the House on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Minnesota Rep. Collin C. Peterson was one of just two Democrats who voted against Democrats’ impeachment resolution in the House on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Two Democrats in competitive districts broke with their party on Thursday’s impeachment resolution in the House — a reminder of how complicated the politics of impeachment may be in seats in conservative parts of the country that Democrats want to hold in 2020.

Minnesota’s Collin C. Peterson and New Jersey’s Jeff Van Drew were the only two House Democrats to vote against the resolution, which lays out procedures that will govern the public portion of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. It was adopted 232-196 without any Republican support.

“Collin would always say, ‘It’s just going to be you and me,’ and I said, ‘Nah, there might be more people.’ But it was just him and me,” Van Drew told reporters after the vote.

Republicans used the two Democratic members to argue that the vote against the impeachment resolution was bipartisan and called on Democrats to turn over all the transcripts of closed-door interviews led by the Intelligence Committee.

“In a way, you can say congratulations to Nancy Pelosi. She wanted a bipartisan vote on her impeachment inquiry resolution. She got it,” New York Rep. Lee Zeldin said at a GOP press conference after the vote.

In some ways, Peterson and Van Drew, who are both members of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, couldn’t be more different. Peterson is from Minnesota farm country and has been in the House since 1991. Van Drew, a dapper dentist from Cape May, is a freshman.

Both are trying to defend seats that Trump carried in 2016, although Peterson’s terrain is much more sympathetic to the president than Van Drew’s.

Peterson has voted with Trump nearly 24 percent of the time this year — more than any other Democrat in the House, according to CQ’s Vote Watch. Van Drew has sided with the president on legislation just 4 percent of the time.

A handful of Van Drew’s fellow freshmen from Trump districts had long held out on supporting an impeachment inquiry, but all of them voted for Thursday’s resolution.

Van Drew and Peterson weren’t moved.

“Without support from Senate Republicans, going down this path is a mistake,” Peterson said in a statement after the vote.

He criticized the way his party is running the impeachment inquiry.

“I have some serious concerns with the way the closed-door depositions were run, and am skeptical that we will have a process that is open, transparent and fair,” Peterson said.

But he also took a shot at Republicans for trying to conflate Thursday’s vote with a vote for impeachment itself.

Van Drew acknowledges that Trump’s request for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden was inappropriate. But speaking to reporters after the vote, he said that because there was no investigation of Biden and the U.S. did eventually send the congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine, it doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. But Van Drew is leaving the door open to supporting impeachment if he sees something that is “really treasonous or truly a high crime.”

“Do you know who the good impeachers are?” Van Drew asked reporters. “The voters.”

The former New Jersey state senator said he isn’t hearing much from voters about impeachment, one way or the other.

“I hear from people who want to talk about everything but,” he said. Minutes after the vote, Van Drew’s campaign sent out a fundraising email about health care.

Having won a four-way primary in 2018, Van Drew said he isn’t worried about his vote opening him up to a primary challenge from the left.

Republicans are targeting both Democrats in 2020.

Trump carried Van Drew’s southern New Jersey district by just shy of 5 points in 2016, though Democrat Barack Obama carried it in both 2008 and 2012. Republican Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo decided not to seek reelection in 2018, and Van Drew won the open 2nd District seat by nearly 8 points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates his reelection Tilts Democratic.

Trump carried Peterson’s district by a much bigger margin — 31 points. Peterson, the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, has a strong brand in the rural 7th District. As one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, who didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016, he’s widely regarded as the last person from his party who can hold the seat. He hasn’t yet announced whether he’s running for a 16th term.

If he does run, he may not be able to outrun the shifting partisan dynamics of his district. He only narrowly defeated an underfunded GOP challenger who ran the past two cycles. Next year, he’s likely facing a more formidable opponent in former Minnesota Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach. Inside Elections rates his race Leans Democratic.

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GOP goes on offense

Van Drew and Peterson’s votes did shield them from a fresh round of digital ads slamming Democrats for the impeachment inquiry vote.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, launched digital ads in 29 Democratic districts, with the text, “Your member of Congress just voted for impeachment!” The ads direct viewers to a website encouraging them to sign a petition to stop the impeachment inquiry.

All 29 are seats that Trump won in 2016. Van Drew and Peterson were the only two Democrats from Trump districts who were not targeted by the ads.

The ads underscored the complicated messaging for vulnerable Democrats when it comes to impeachment. The vote Thursday involved the process for opening the impeachment inquiry, not whether Trump should ultimately be impeached.

Maine Democratic Rep. Jared Golden highlighted the distinction in a Wednesday statement ahead of the vote, saying that his support for the resolution “does not indicate that I am in favor of impeaching the president.”

“As I’ve said from the beginning, I will continue to treat these allegations with the gravity they deserve, and I refuse to prejudge the outcome,“ Golden said.

But that clarification hasn’t stopped Republicans from attacking Democrats like Golden who flipped House seats last fall and face competitive races in 2020. Trump carried Maine’s 2nd District by nearly 11 points in 2016 and Inside Elections rates the race Tilts Democratic.

Republicans cheered the vote Thursday as a sign that they are going to win back the House in 2020.

“The impeachment-obsessed Democrats just flushed their majority down the toilet,” National Republican Congressional Campaign spokesman Michael McAdams said.

But vulnerable Republicans could also face Democratic criticism for not breaking with their party on the vote. No Republicans voted to support opening the impeachment inquiry.

“Every Republican in Washington has to pick a side and state clearly whether they support getting the facts through a transparent process, or sweeping the truth under the rug,” a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman said ahead of Thursday’s vote.

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Lindsey McPherson and Todd Ruger contributed to this report. 

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