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Vulnerable Democrat gets little heat over impeachment at town hall

Trump predicted that Democrats would face a backlash, but that hasn’t happened

Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia speaks at a town hall at New Hope Baptist Church in Virginia Beach on Thursday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. —Elaine Luria knew that many at the church where she spoke here Thursday night weren’t going like what she had to say about impeachment.

But at her first town hall since she led a group of Republican-targeted Democrats who threw their support behind an inquiry into President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine last week, Luria stood her ground.

“People may say, ‘Why would you do that? You might not get reelected,’” she said at the New Hope Baptist Church. “I don’t care. Because I did the right thing.”

The statement was typical of the messaging that came from House Democrats returning to their districts this week as the chamber’s impeachment inquiry gets underway. And the response from Luria’s constituents — a few heckles drowned out by resounding applause — could not have been  the type of scene the White House had hoped would greet Democrats in swing districts like hers.

Early in the week, Trump and his team predicted that Democrats would face a backlash over the inquiry, and that, in response, their support for it would fade.

That hasn’t happened.

New York Rep. Max Rose was one of a handful of moderate Democrats who held back his support for an inquiry after the release of a transcript of a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Rose opened a Wednesday night town hall in Staten Island with the announcement that he would now “fully support” a probe. Also that night in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Rep. Susan Wild answered passionate questions about the issue, then moved on to focus on climate change, the Green New Deal and education.

Both Luria and Rose’s districts, Virginia’s 2nd and New York’s 11th, voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. Wild’s went with Clinton by just 1 point.

These are the type of districts that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the most concerned about protecting for much of this year, as she resisted full-throated calls for action on impeachment from the party’s progressive flank based on allegations obstruction of justice resulting from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report, or other issues.

Luria was one of seven freshman Democrats from vulnerable districts with military and national security backgrounds whose op-ed last week in The Washington Post calling for an inquiry tipped the scales. 

She said Thursday night that learning of Trump’s call to Zelenskiy changed her mind, a position she has laid out multiple times since then. In the rough transcript released by the White House, Trump asks the Ukrainian leader to open a corruption investigation connected to former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential Democratic opponent in the 2020 presidential election.

“It was a clear break from anything that had been laid out previously,” Luria said.

Political strategists told CQ Roll Call in recent days that vulnerable Democrats will need to walk a fine line as they lay out their case to constituents.

Democrats hoped to see Luria and her colleagues provide focused and concise answers about their support for the inquiry, then quickly move on to the “kitchen table issues,” such as health care, the environment or gun violence, topics that fueled Democrats’ net 40-seat pickup in the House in 2018.

Republicans, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to draw vulnerable freshmen off course and argue that the pursuit of impeachment is sacrificing progress on the issues that drew cross-over voters in the midterms.

Denise Kline, 63, a Navy retiree in the Virginia Beach crowd Thursday night, said her position on the inquiry dovetailed with Luria’s, and the congresswoman had already “said everything she needs to say.” Still, she said, she was eager to hear Luria address concerns from the crowd.

“I feel this is a time you really have to stand up for the institutions in this country, and our processes,” she said.

But not everyone expected to be convinced. James Tackeberry, a government technician who said he was in his 30s, said he did not think he had heard “the truth” so far from either side.

“I don’t think the evidence for or against has been looked at, with unbiased eyes,” he said, adding that a true investigation would include a probe of Biden. Tackeberry voted for Trump in 2016 and so far did not see any reason not to vote for him again. He did not vote for Luria last fall, he said.

The town hall was carefully planned to keep Luria on message. She told the gaggle of reporters who traveled to the event, four hours outside of Washington, D.C., that she planned to spend a third of her time dealing with impeachment questions. Then she would move on to spend the same amount of time discussing health care and gun control.

She noted that Ryan Keith Cox, the son of New Hope Pastor E. Ray Cox, was one of 12 people murdered in May by a mass shooter at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center.

Dressed in a crisp red suit, with her official House member’s pin hanging from a chain around her neck, Luria stood politely through a standing ovation at the first question — which was really a commendation for her “brave, patriotic decision” on the impeachment inquiry.

“I appreciate your enthusiasm,” she said. “But I truly feel that this is a sad time for our country. I did not go to Washington to impeach the president. I went there to do things for our community.”

She also referred to the military experience that has helped endear her to voters in a district where the Navy anchors the economy.

“I did not spend 20 years in uniform defending our country to watch something like this happen,” the Navy veteran and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy said.

Attendees submitted questions in advance, insulating Luria from any direct confrontations. There were still flares of tension. At one point, a church member who volunteered to provide security to the event came to the microphone to admonish someone in the crowd.

“You’re not going to come here and disrespect the congresswoman or my church,” he said. “If you have a problem with that, leave now.”

But for the most part, the roughly 200 people in the crowd listened as Luria made her case. The moderator, a pastor from the church, said he had time for every question on the issue, which was not the case when Luria turned later to health care. When she mentioned the number of people in the community who had enrolled in Medicaid after a recent expansion, she received a round of applause.

Keith Mathews, 66, a retired salesman who said he voted for Trump in 2016 and did not vote for Luria in 2018, said he thought the congresswoman handled the crowd well. But he wanted to see more facts before he makes a decision about 2020.

“I respect her, and I like her,” he said. “I could go with her. It all depends on what happens, and the impeachment.”

Mary Ellen McIntire and Dean DeChiaro contributed to this report.

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