Politics & Government

Democrats embrace risks — and potential rewards — with Trump impeachment inquiry

House Democrats’ historic announcement that they would begin a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump quiets a bitter intraparty argument, shifts unwanted attention to vulnerable GOP lawmakers, and puts their own swing-district incumbents in a potentially difficult bind.

Now, they have to wait and find out if the public is with them.

The suddenness of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to back the impeachment process left even the most seasoned political operatives dazed as they grappled with a new political reality that had seemed unlikely even a week ago.

Despite protests from liberal activists, Pelosi had long refused to take the extraordinary step of impeaching Trump. But calls from within her caucus to launch an inquiry grew this week amid allegations that Trump pressured the Ukranian president to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

With the 2020 elections looming, Democrats are betting that the fresh accusations of wrongdoing against Trump will make the public more open to the impeachment process — even if previous polls on the matter showed that a majority of voters are against it.

“People see that Democrats didn’t want to get here,” said Jesse Ferguson, a veteran Democratic strategist. “But Donald Trump brought it on himself.”

“Nobody likes it if you pull the fire alarm in a crowded movie theater,” he continued. “But they sure appreciate you doing it if there is a fire.”

Ferguson and other Democratic operatives cautioned that it’s too early to know exactly what the political fallout from an impeachment inquiry will be. The public has yet to digest the new accusations against Trump, they say, and new information is still likely yet to surface.

Trump said Tuesday that he would release the transcript of his call with the Ukranian leader, while Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said the whistleblower who made the complaint against Trump wants to testify.

Some Republicans, however, said the probe puts many House Democratic members who represent swing districts in a difficult position. For many of those lawmakers, the path to re-election involves winning over at least some Trump voters, almost all of whom oppose impeachment.

“This is going to put them in a tremendous hole for re-election,” said Matt Gorman, who served as the communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee during the 2018 campaign. “The situation on the ground could change, absolutely, but as of right now, it’s a very clear-cut divisive that a Republican can use against them.”

Members representing districts that voted heavily in favor of Trump in 2016, like Reps. Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma, and Max Rose of New York, will be in an especially tough spot. As of Tuesday evening, 13 of the 31 Democrats representing districts Trump won in 2016 expressed support for moving forward with an impeachment probe.

Some Democrats compared the impeachment move to another high-profile issue from last year, the contentious Supreme Court confirmation fight over Brett Kavanaugh. At the time, Kavanaugh was credited with motivating Republican voters to turn out in during a midterm election where several Senate Democrats were running in red states.

“There is almost no equation in which impeachment proceedings are good for the electoral prospects of freshman battleground Democrats because it makes them Democrats,” said one Democratic pollster who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It is like the Kavanaugh vote.”

Democrats counter that after months of questions about impeachment, they are eager to see some attention turn to vulnerable GOP incumbents like Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado.

But on the campaign trail, some rank-and-file Democrats expressed reservations.

Melanie Clark, a high school government teacher who brought her class to a Bernie Sanders event in West Liberty, Iowa on Tuesday, said she feared that ignorance about the impeachment process could ultimately work against the Democrats.

“I don’t think most Americans realize it’s a two-part process, so I’m afraid that most Americans would see him get the articles of impeachment pressed against him, but since he wouldn’t be removed, they’d say ‘Oh, he’s good.’ And then that could actually backfire in the election,” Clark said.

Celeste Homrighausen, a Bennett, Iowa retiree, said it was futile to even bother kicking off a multi-month process in which the likely result was predetermined.

“I think it’ll be too much of a struggle. He’s only got a year to go. Just let him go another year and we’ll get him out of there,” she said.

Even Sanders, who initially called for an impeachment inquiry three months ago, expressed reservations about the political ramifications if the process distracted Democrats from addressing bread-and-butter economic issues. He said he doubted many Republicans would go against Trump regardless of the amount of evidence presented during a public trial.

“I know and you know what he will do — ‘I am vindicated. They spent months trying to attack me and I am vindicated!’ And I think that is a factor that has to be taken into consideration,” Sanders told reporters in Davenport. “This is a complicated issue from a political point of view.”

While Sanders supports the House Judiciary Committee kickstarting the investigation, he stopped short of saying he’d vote to convict Trump before he saw all the evidence.

At this stage, most Democrats are accepting that they don’t know exactly how the impeachment proceedings will play out.

“We are in for 1968 times a hundred, I’m afraid,” said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin. “With no outcome certain.”

Alex Roarty reported from Washington; David Catanese reported from Iowa; Adam Wollner contributed reporting from Washington

Alex Roarty has written about the Democratic Party since joining McClatchy in 2017. He’s been a campaigns reporter in Washington since 2010, after covering politics and state government in Pennsylvania during former Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term.
David Catanese is a national political correspondent for McClatchy in Washington. He’s covered campaigns for more than a decade, previously working at U.S. News & World Report and Politico. Prior to that he was a television reporter for NBC affiliates in Missouri and North Dakota. You can send tips, smart takes and critiques to dcatanese@mcclatchydc.com.