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Stefanik, Van Drew lean into roles as impeachment defenders

Only one other speaker at either party convention even mentioned it

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik addresses the Republican National Convention on Wednesday.
New York Rep. Elise Stefanik addresses the Republican National Convention on Wednesday. (Courtesy the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Convention via Getty Images)

While Democrats never highlighted impeaching President Donald Trump during their convention last week, House Republican members brought it up three times this week to demonstrate how unfair the opposing party had been to Trump.

New York’s Elise Stefanik and New Jersey’s Jeff Van Drew arguably would not have been picked to speak at the GOP convention if not for their roles in defending Trump against impeachment. Both leaned into the topic.

“Since his first day in office, President Trump has fought tirelessly to deliver results for all Americans, despite the Democrats’ baseless and illegal impeachment sham and the media’s endless obsession with it,” Stefanik said Wednesday. “I was proud to lead the effort standing up for the Constitution, President Trump and, most importantly, the American people. This attack was not just on the president, it was an attack on you — your voice and your vote.”

Stefanik said the American people “were not swayed by these partisan attacks” and their support for Trump was “stronger than ever before.”

The impeachment process led Stefanik, who was previously one of the more moderate Republicans in Congress, to become the president’s leading female defender in a House Republican Conference full of Trump surrogates who are mostly men.

Backing Trump is not risky for Stefanik since he won her upstate New York district by 14 points in 2016. She’s not considered vulnerable for reelection this cycle, with her race rated Solid Republican by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

Fellow New York Republican Lee Zeldin, who also defended Trump against impeachment earlier this year and spoke at the convention Wednesday, could face some trouble this November despite Trump carrying his 1st District on Long Island by 12 points.

The day he appeared, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Zeldin’s opponent, Nancy Goroff, to its Red to Blue program for candidates the party thinks can flip Republican-held seats. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican.

Zeldin, who with Stefanik and six colleagues served as informal Trump defenders in media appearances during the Senate trial, focused on Trump’s assistance to New York during the pandemic rather than impeachment during his convention speech.

But Van Drew built his speech Thursday night around impeachment, explaining that it was the reason he switched parties and became a Republican after voting not to impeach Trump last December. 

Van Drew admitted he felt uncomfortable with the House Democratic Caucus’ progressive bent when he arrived in Congress at the start of 2019. But it was impeachment at the end of the year, he said, that drove him over the edge.

“Democratic leaders told me that I had to vote for impeachment or my life would be made difficult and I wouldn’t be allowed to run again,” he said. “Listen, I’m from South Jersey, and you better come at with me with more than just loud words and empty threats. I voted no on impeachment, and it was an easy call.”

Van Drew won the open 2nd District in 2018, succeeding Republican Frank A. LoBiondo, who retired after 12 terms.

Van Drew faces educator and mental health advocate Amy Kennedy, the wife of former Rhode Island Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, in November. Their race is rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

Jordan also cites ‘fake’ impeachment

Another House Republican on the defense messaging team, Ohio’s Jim Jordan, spoke at the convention Monday in a prerecorded address.

Jordan, now the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee and former ranking member of the Oversight panel, briefly mentioned impeachment as he talked about Trump fighting against Democrats’ “crazy ideas.”

“When you take on the swamp, the swamp fights back,” he said. “They tried the Russia hoax, the Mueller investigation, and the fake impeachment, but in spite of this unbelievable opposition, this president has done what he said he would do.”

One of Trump’s lawyers who presented his defense case on the Senate floor spoke at the convention. Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general, didn’t directly mention impeachment, but she talked about “opportunism” and “corruption” allegations involving Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, that were part of her defense during the trial.

No mention at DNC

As little attention as impeachment received in the first three days of the Republican National Convention, the topic was not even mentioned during the four days of the Democratic convention.

The only nod to impeachment was a brief appearance during the second night of the convention by Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to the Ukraine who served as a witness during the House proceedings. Yovanovitch didn’t address her claim to fame; she just made a few remarks in a segment with other former national security leaders about Biden’s ability to make tough foreign policy decisions.

“He will do the right thing, no matter the political cost,” Yovanovitch said.

Ross Garber, who teaches political investigations and impeachment at Tulane Law School, told CQ Roll Call that it “makes sense” that impeachment is not being featured as a significant issue by either party during the conventions.

“Even though an impeachment is a dramatic political event, in this cycle it’s been overtaken by some other very dramatic events, including a pandemic and economic distress and social unrest,” he said.

‘Unlikely to motivate’ voters

Democrats never really intended to make impeachment a political issue, given its divisiveness, especially in swing districts. Nationwide public support for impeaching Trump hovered just under 50 percent throughout the House proceedings that led to two impeachment articles and the Senate trial that acquitted him on both charges.

Garber said he’s not surprised Democrats didn’t feature impeachment at their convention since the proceedings were “unsuccessful and arguably counterproductive for the Democrats,” although he doesn’t think mentioning it would have had an impact either way.

“It does seem unlikely to motivate much of the base or win any additional voters,” he said.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi feels Democrats will be successful in 2020 if they focus on a positive agenda of kitchen table issues rather than attacking Trump. She said as much Wednesday when asked during a Democratic National Committee press call about Republicans potentially violating the Hatch Act by holding convention events at the White House.

“The American people really, they know these people are unethical and illegal and doing things outside the law,” the California Democrat said. “What they want to know is what we’re going to be doing for them. And we’d rather have our focus be very much on how we’re going to protect their health care, how we’re going to create good-paying jobs, how we’re going to take our country in a forward direction in cleaner government.”

Republicans have more incentive than Democrats to bring up the impeachment process during the convention and in the campaign.

“It fits with the president’s narrative of being constantly under attack by the Democrats,” Garber said. “I don’t think the Republicans expect that references to impeachment, either overt or otherwise, will hurt the president.”

Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.

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