How centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment

Centrist House Democrats facing potentially competitive reelection bids next year are increasingly confident the impeachment inquiry into President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Official testifies that Bolton had 'one-on-one meeting' with Trump over Ukraine aid Louisiana governor wins re-election MORE won’t prove as damaging to their prospects as they once feared.

All but two Democratic lawmakers voted Thursday to endorse the inquiry in its first House floor vote, showing that the caucus is digging in now that the impeachment process is picking up speed.

Democratic operatives and aides concede that the strategy carries political risks for the party’s most vulnerable members, possibly putting them on defense in districts won by Trump in a year when the president himself will be back on the ballot.

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But they argue that public sentiment in even the most competitive battleground districts has moved in their favor in recent months. At the same time, there’s a sense among Democrats that the narrative that has emerged from the early stages of the impeachment inquiry — that Trump sought to withhold military aid from Ukraine as part of an effort to pressure Kiev to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBudget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Growing 2020 field underscores Democratic divide READ: Foreign service officer Jennifer Williams' closed-door testimony from the House impeachment inquiry MORE and his son — has left them with little choice than to get on board.

“The two things that we really ran on in 2018 were protecting health care and holding Trump accountable, and this is 100 percent in line with holding the president accountable for when he’s doing something that’s a risk to the country,” one Democratic campaign aide familiar with the strategy said.

“There’s a risk in everything you do. But for Democrats more broadly there’s a risk in showing you’re not able to be a check on the executive.”

The endorsement of the impeachment inquiry by the vast majority of the House Democratic caucus signals a drastic change in thinking from even a month earlier, when several centrist members resisted the idea of a formal vote, concerned that it could hurt their reelection prospects.

Those concerns were particularly pointed among some of the caucus’s freshmen members who flipped Republican-held seats in 2018 with campaigns focused on kitchen-table issues such as health care and prescription drug costs.

But on Thursday, even the most vulnerable House Democrats expressed support for the impeachment inquiry, including Reps. Joe CunninghamJoseph CunninghamConservative group unveils million ad campaign against Trump impeachment Club for Growth extends advertising against House Dems over impeachment Progressive freshmen jump into leadership PAC fundraising MORE (S.C.), Kendra HornKendra Suzanne HornHow centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment Democrats, GOP dig in for public phase of impeachment battle House panel advances resolution outlining impeachment inquiry MORE (Okla.) and Lucy McBathLucia (Lucy) Kay McBathDemocrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump How centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment DACA student at Yale petitions to protect mother recovering with cancer from deportation MORE (Ga.), all of whom are expected to face difficult reelection campaigns in 2020.

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Recent polling commissioned by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and shared with caucus members last month showed support for the inquiry breaking even.

In the 57 most competitive battleground districts, 49 percent said they were in favor of moving the inquiry forward, while 48 percent opposed the effort, according to the polling data obtained by The Hill.

In a memo to the DCCC, the firms behind the polling data, Anzalone Liszt Grove Research and GBAO Strategies, laid out messaging guidance for Democrats, advising them to “keep the language simple, direct and values-based” and to cast the impeachment inquiry as part of their congressional duties.

“Emphasize the core value that no one is above the law,” the memo said. “Incumbent members who support the inquiry are simply working to uphold the rule of law and Republicans who oppose the inquiry are failing to fulfill their oath of office.”

Still, there’s no consensus on how the impeachment inquiry will affect centrist Democrats heading into competitive reelection bids in 2020. Two House Democrats broke from their party and voted against the impeachment inquiry resolution on Thursday: Reps. Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonHow centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment GOP lawmaker says House impeachment rules vote 'doesn't change anything for me' Majority of Americans see impeachment inquiry as fair: poll MORE (Minn.) and Jeff Van DrewJeff Van DrewWhat's on the ballot across the country on Tuesday How centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment Majority of Americans see impeachment inquiry as fair: poll MORE (N.J.), both moderates facing aggressive Republican challenges.

In a statement after Thursday’s vote, Peterson, a nearly 30-year veteran of the House whose district Trump carried by 30 points in 2016, said that moving forward with the impeachment inquiry without the support of the Senate’s Republican majority was “a mistake.”

“This impeachment process continues to be hopelessly partisan,” Peterson said. “I have been hearing from my constituents on both sides of this matter for months, and the escalation of calls this past week just shows me how divided our country really is right now.”

Van Drew said that he voted against the resolution because he believed it would “further divide the country” and distract from policy priorities. Trump won Van Drew’s district in 2016, albeit by a smaller margin than Peterson’s — just under 5 points.

Republicans, meanwhile, have maintained a unified front on the impeachment inquiry, betting that their best path to victory in 2020 runs through Trump’s base of loyal supporters. They’re hoping that the investigation will be a flashpoint in down-ballot races that will motivate conservatives and propel the GOP back into the House majority.

No Republican House members broke with the party on Thursday's vote.

GOP lawmakers have seized on the argument in recent days that by pursuing the impeachment inquiry, Democrats have pushed aside their legislative duties, with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHarris introduces bill to prevent California wildfires McCarthy says views on impeachment won't change even if Taylor's testimony is confirmed House Republicans call impeachment hearing 'boring,' dismiss Taylor testimony as hearsay MORE (R-Calif.) claiming that Democrats have “written more subpoenas than they have laws” since taking the majority earlier this year.

Rep. Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyLawmakers under pressure to pass benefits fix for military families How centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment On The Money: Senate passes first spending package as shutdown looms | Treasury moves to roll back Obama rules on offshore tax deals | Trade deal talks manage to weather Trump impeachment storm MORE (Texas), the top Republican on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, made a similar point during an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” this week.

“For more moderate and competitive members, they can’t go home with just impeachment in their pocket,” Brady said.

Democrats say they do have legislative accomplishments to tout back home, such as a sweeping democracy reform package and bills on climate change and gun violence, all of which have stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate. They’re also nearing a vote on a measure that would allow the secretary of Health and Human Services to negotiate lower prescription drug prices.

Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist, said that he does not expect Thursday’s vote to carry significant electoral consequences for vulnerable members.

“When people show up to vote next year, they’re not going to vote for someone or not vote for someone because of a process vote,” Seawright said. “We shouldn’t let the Republicans define us on a process vote. It’s a vote to add a second layer of transparency to the process and give the public a direct eye into what’s been happening.”

But Republicans say that by backing the inquiry resolution, Democrats have put themselves in a precarious electoral position. The GOP needs to win at least 19 Democrat-held House seats in 2020 if they hope to recapture control of the chamber, and they see the impeachment inquiry as a weak point for vulnerable Democrats.

They argue that House Democrats are barreling towards a repeat of the GOP-led impeachment of President Clinton in 1998 that ultimately backfired on Republicans and handed Democrats a series of midterm election victories.

But Pat Griffin, Clinton’s former director of legislative affairs, said that history will have little bearing on how Democrats fare in 2020. Unlike Clinton, he noted, Trump has long struggled with underwater approval ratings.

“We’re acting as if the historical precedent of Clinton is how things will play out with Trump,” Griffin said.

“I don’t think that that’s exactly what’s going to happen now. A lot of what happened in the past isn’t a good predictor of what will happen here. We’re breaking one boundary after another. To just conclude how that played out is how this will play out is, I think, unwise.”