Centrist Democrats fret over impeachment gamble

Centrist Democrats fret over impeachment gamble
© Aaron Schwartz - Greg Nash

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFeehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Key GOP senator: 'We need a breakthrough' on spending talks Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Stopgap spending bill includes military pay raise | Schumer presses Pentagon to protect impeachment witnesses | US ends civil-nuclear waiver in Iran MORE’s (D-Calif.) remarkable move to formalize an impeachment inquiry into President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE escalates the tensions between the parties — and marks a huge gamble by House Democrats heading into the high-stakes 2020 elections.

While the strategy has quickly invigorated the party’s liberal base, it’s also empowered GOP attacks that Democrats are attempting to nullify the results of the 2016 presidential election through an impeachment process that remains underwater in national opinion polls.

Some moderate Democrats on Capitol Hill are sounding a warning that, by launching head-first into impeachment, party leaders risk alienating voters in the very districts they most need to keep in order to retain the House next year — the same concern Pelosi harbored for months in initially resisting that divisive step.

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“This is going to suck up the oxygen in the room,” said freshman Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-N.J.), who pointed to Watergate and the impeachment of Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonFeehery: Pivoting to infrastructure could help heal post-impeachment wounds Press: Ukraine's not the only outrage The 2 events that reshaped the Democratic primary race MORE as historic examples of how the process can quickly devour the nation’s attention — at the expense of legislative priorities.

“It is the focus of the media; it is the focus of the legislature; it is the focus of just about everybody in Washington,” added Van Drew, who represents a district Trump won by 4.6 points in 2016. “So I am concerned that it will, in some way, take us away from the real business at hand, which are pocketbook issues for the people of our districts.

“You really are opening Pandora’s Box.”

Many Democrats — including top leaders — are dismissing the notion that the party’s embrace of impeachment will undermine their legislative efforts or lead to political blowback at the polls next year. They say Trump’s admission that he pressed a foreign leader to investigate a domestic political adversary is damning enough — and clear-cut enough for voters to digest — to merit the escalation in the party’s oversight strategy.

“The American people have seen this play out in plain view, in real time. It’s not looking back at conduct and trying to figure out what happened,” said Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHillicon Valley: Federal inquiry opened into Google health data deal | Facebook reports millions of post takedowns | Microsoft shakes up privacy debate | Disney plus tops 10M sign-ups in first day Top antitrust Dem presses DOJ, FTC on Google's Fitbit acquisition Hillicon Valley: California AG reveals Facebook investigation | McConnell criticizes Twitter's political ad ban | Lawmakers raise concerns over Google takeover of Fitbit | Dem pushes FCC to secure 5G networks MORE (R.I.), head of the Democrats’ messaging arm. “This is the president of the United States telling the American people that he reached out to a foreign leader in an effort to gin up a fake story against one of his political opponents — in real time.”

Yet Trump and Republican political operatives have pounced this week, accusing Democrats of launching a witch hunt against the president to score political points ahead of the elections. The Republicans’ campaign arm has been hard at work blasting attack ads against any vulnerable Democrat who has backed Pelosi’s impeachment strategy.

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The Republicans have some history to draw upon: After impeaching Clinton in 1998 — when public support was not behind them — Republicans were clobbered in the midterm cycle. They’re hoping to turn the tides on Democrats this time around.

“Make no mistake about it: Backing impeachment will cost the Democrats their majority in 2020,” said Rep. Tom EmmerThomas (Tom) Earl EmmerGeorge Papadopoulos launches campaign to run for Katie Hill's congressional seat Shimkus says he's been asked to reconsider retirement Walden retirement adds to GOP election woes MORE (Minn.), head of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that just 37 percent of voters support Trump’s impeachment, versus 57 percent who oppose the move. The partisan divide, however, is stark: 73 percent of Democrats back the controversial move, while just 4 percent of Republicans felt the same.

Some Democrats on the receiving end of the GOP attacks concede impeachment is unpopular with constituents back home. But they said Trump’s actions with Ukraine are so egregious and unconstitutional, they cannot be ignored.

“A lot of people in my district don’t love the idea of impeachment. I’ve certainly been hearing from them,” said freshman Rep. Elissa SlotkinElissa SlotkinOvernight Health Care: Democratic group to only endorse AG candidates who back abortion rights | Protect Our Care launches seven-figure ad buy to boost vulnerable Dems | California sues Juul Group launches seven-figure ad buy boosting vulnerable Democrats on drug prices Overnight Health Care: Walden won't seek reelection | Senate Dems to vote this week to overturn Trump ObamaCare moves | Largest children's migrant shelter to close | Vulnerable Republicans balk at drug pricing bill MORE (D-Mich.), a former CIA analyst and Defense Department official who ousted GOP Rep. Mike Bishop last fall.

“Rep. Elissa Slotkin may have risked political career with call for Trump impeachment,” read a Wednesday column by the opinion page editor for the Detroit Free Press that praised her “political courage.”

Earlier this week, Slotkin joined six other vulnerable freshman lawmakers in endorsing an impeachment inquiry after reports that Trump had repeatedly pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate his chief political rival, former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Democrats release two new transcripts ahead of next public impeachment hearings Press: Ukraine's not the only outrage MORE.

“For me, it’s about that top-line request. We can’t make it normal for the president of the United States of any party to go to a foreign leader — the Chinese, the North Koreans, let’s go to the Iranians, anybody — and ask for dirt in our political process. That should not be OK,” Slotkin said. “And that’s my deep concern about that, about setting a normal example, a precedent on that is why, despite the fact that it is controversial in my district, I came out” in favor of impeachment.

Other vulnerable Democrats are simply trying to steer clear of the impeachment issue that’s swept over Capitol Hill this week. Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.), one of roughly 30 Democrats who doesn’t back an impeachment inquiry, sidestepped questions about whether his party’s aggressive impeachment push could harm his reelection chances in 2020.

“I’m more worried about making sure that we work in parallel track on addressing the needs of our country, the public policy that’s needed to be to make sure families are made whole,” O’Halleran told The Hill.

“If all you’re going to do is worry about elections ... that’s up to my constituents. I have to do public policy.”

Almost 190 House Democrats are now on record supporting impeachment in some form, according to a tally being kept by The Hill. The holdouts, including O’Halleran and Van Drew, are a mix of veteran Blue Dogs — like 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 Kurt SchraderWalter (Kurt) Kurt SchraderCaution for Democrats: Voters care more about drug pricing than impeaching Trump Here are the House Democrats who aren't backing Trump impeachment inquiry Centrist Democrats fret over impeachment gamble MORE (Ore.) — and freshman moderates facing tough reelections, including Reps. Jared Golden (Maine) and 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.).

Another freshman, Rep. Donna ShalalaDonna Edna ShalalaOvernight Health Care: Trump officials making changes to drug pricing proposal | House panel advances flavored e-cig ban | Senators press FDA tobacco chief on vaping ban House panel advances flavored e-cigarette ban Warren doubles down — to Democrats' chagrin, and Trump's delight MORE (D-Fla.), said the Ukraine issue “really put it over” for lawmakers like her who just flipped GOP seats. And she added that she’s personally not concerned at all about political blowback for backing impeachment. 

“No, no. I’ve listened to my constituents. I’ve been careful in arguing that we have to start the process. No one’s above the law. I’ve made my argument in my community. And I’ve had 15 town meetings and I’m going to have a slew of others,” said Shalala, a former Clinton Cabinet secretary who lived through her boss’s impeachment hearings during the late 1990s.

“People are very concerned about the president breaking the law. ... Democrats in particular are concerned, but I think everybody’s concerned.”