A cascade of Democrats facing competitive races backed an impeachment inquiry this week, which likely spurred Speaker Nancy Pelosi to drop her objections to using that word to describe ongoing probes.
Some vulnerable incumbents are not using the “I” word, however, and the Republican-leaning districts they represent help explain why.
These lawmakers are not defending President Donald Trump. But they want more information about allegations that he pressured the newly elected Ukrainian president to investigate a potential 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. They particularly want to read the full complaint from a whistleblower who raised concerns about the president’s actions. Some also say an inquiry should be bipartisan, while one has questioned whether Trump’s actions rise to the level of impeachment.
Of the 44 Democrats named to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Frontline program for vulnerable incumbents, 10 had not backed a formal impeachment inquiry at press time.
Most Frontline members took that step following the latest allegations relating to Ukraine, and more than a dozen went a step further to say that if proved true, the allegations would be impeachable offenses.
All 10 holdouts face competitive races for reelection in districts that Trump won in 2016. And all but two are freshmen who flipped seats last fall.
Pennsylvania Democratic consultant Mike Mikus said lawmakers like Conor Lamb, whose district Trump won by 2 points in 2016, are smart to take a cautious approach. However Lamb ultimately comes down on impeachment, Mikus said the decision will upset people in his district, but his deliberation could appeal to middle-of-the-road voters who are persuadable.
“They don’t want someone who is going to rush to a decision one way or another,” Mikus said.
Six of the 10 holdouts hail from districts Trump won by double digits. They include Jared Golden of Maine, Xochitl Torres Small of New Mexico, Max Rose and Anthony Brindisi of New York, Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Joe Cunningham of South Carolina.
Their hesitancy to embrace a formal impeachment inquiry could help their reelection bids by distancing them from the national party.
The other four Frontline members who haven’t backed an impeachment inquiry are also from districts Trump carried, but by smaller margins, and include Lamb, Tom O’Halleran of Arizona, Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey and Ben McAdams of Utah.
It does not appear that these lawmakers’ positions have changed in light of a readout released Wednesday of a July call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden.
Six of the 10 Democratic holdouts did not respond to requests for comment on the rough transcript. Rose and McAdams said they still want to see the whistleblower’s complaint that allegedly details the president’s actions. A spokesman for Brindisi also said the congressman “still believes we need to get more facts.”
Van Drew questioned whether Trump had committed an impeachable offense.
“Of course, there were some things in there that concern you a little bit, that you may not be happy with,” the New Jersey Democrat told reporters. “Whether that’s really impeachment-worthy is a different question.”
Asked if he was feeling pressure from leadership or other rank-and-file Democrats to change his mind, Van Drew said, “A little bit of both, but nothing that you can’t handle.”
Other Democrats who recently backed an impeachment inquiry said they were not lobbying other members to join their cause.
“It is none of my business what other Democrats do,” said Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who was among a group of seven moderates who co-authored a Washington Post op-ed on Monday. They wrote that if the allegations were true, Trump committed an impeachable offense.
That group included freshman lawmakers with military or national security backgrounds who flipped GOP districts last year. Some of the holdouts are veterans too, including Rose, Lamb and Golden.
It’s not clear if the group of seven invited the other lawmakers to sign the op-ed. Rose has previously noted he became close friends in 2018 with several of the op-ed authors.
Asked if they tried to include Rose in the op-ed, Pennsylvania Rep. Chrissy Houlahan said, “You have to ask Max.”
Problem on the left?
Lawmakers said Wednesday that they were hearing both from constituents who favored and those who opposed impeachment. Some said they weren’t concerned about drawing primary challengers with their cautious approach to an inquiry. Van Drew, for example, noted that he easily won his 2018 primary.
Asked about drawing a primary challenger, McAdams said, “I don’t think politics should really play a role in this decision. I’m going to weigh the facts.”
Jen DeWeerth, a leader of Indivisible Mohawk Valley, said progressive activists in Brindisi’s Central New York district have not been calling for someone to take him on in a primary. She said they were encouraged by Brindisi calling the allegations “incredibly concerning,” and they recognized he’s in a GOP-leaning district.
“While he is not nearly as liberal as most of us in Indivisible Mohawk Valley by a long shot, I knocked thousands of doors for him in 2018, and I will do that again,” DeWeerth said.
New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a pro-impeachment liberal member who has called for incumbents to face primaries, implied she would not jump to back primary challengers solely because of lawmakers’ stances on impeachment.
“I’m certainly not interested in politicizing this process any more than people are already trying to politicize this process,” she said.
A few groups are trying to ramp up the pressure, though. MoveOn.org has launched an “Impeach Now” campaign, directing supporters to events of Republican and Democratic lawmakers, including Lamb, Horn and McAdams. On Wednesday, the group also sent out text messages encouraging members to urge Golden to back impeachment.
Democrats’ support from at least one pro-impeachment inquiry group is not at risk, though.
VoteVets, a liberal veterans group, sent out fundraising emails this week for five of their endorsed lawmakers who co-wrote the op-ed. VoteVets has also endorsed Golden, Rose and Lamb, who have not backed an impeachment inquiry, and is still supporting them.
“Every member has to speak their conscience when it comes to the question of impeachment,” VoteVets Chairman Jon Soltz said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “Whatever our endorsed veterans decide, we’ll be in their corner for 2020 and beyond.”
Simone Pathé contributed to this report.