Why you should care
Because Trump’s presidency could hang in the balance.
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On July 12, Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat, filed the first article of impeachment against Donald J. Trump. For Republicans gearing up for the 2018 elections, the response in many corners is: Bring it on.
The midterms are shaping up to be a referendum on impeachment. Even as investigations into Russian meddling during the 2016 presidential race turn up startling discoveries, House Republicans are exceedingly unlikely to turn on their party leader. But if Democrats flip 24 House seats to capture the chamber, there will be intense pressure to put Trump on trial.
“At least from what we see now, making a step toward impeachment is just going to confirm what a lot of Trump defenders have been saying all along — the Democrats are trying to undo the will of the electorate,” says GOP strategist Chip Lake. “And I think that will play into Republican hands.” Lake, a former chief of staff in the House, lives just outside the 6th District of Georgia, which this year was home to the most expensive U.S. House race in history — and an example of the Republican base turning out to beat back liberal advances.
What better way to turn out Trump lovers [in 2018] than to show his presidency hangs in the balance?
There have been four special House elections this year in Republican-leaning districts, and while Democrats showed unusual strength, they went 0 for 4. In none of the races was impeachment much of an issue, even as anti-Trump energy drove Democrats. Republicans won in part by stoking opposition to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the more fringe elements of the resistance movement, such as “antifa” rioters or comedian Kathy Griffin holding a fake severed Trump head.
A primary source of those attacks: the Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC, run by the sharp-tongued operative Corry Bliss. He redirects questions about impeachment to answers about the resistance. On Trump, Bliss says, “He’s incredibly popular with the base, and remains so.” His chief interest is the other side. “The majority of Americans look at Democrats, and they say a Democrat is someone who hates the president, wants to raise your taxes and loses elections,” Bliss says. “It’s a party that’s beholden to Nancy Pelosi, the resistance movement and San Francisco values.”
Top Democrats are aware of their image problem, and in late July attempted a rebranding called “A Better Deal” — a nod both to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and Trump’s Art of the Deal. (The slogan drew ridicule for its similarity to “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza. Papa John’s.”) The platform rolled out by Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer on a patch of Trump country in rural Virginia does not mention impeachment. New planks focused on using the power of the government to reduce prescription drug prices, break up monopolistic corporations and retrain workers.
Putting aside the unlikelihood of two-thirds of the Senate voting to convict Trump and the drawbacks for liberals of installing Mike Pence in the Oval Office, impeachment is tricky politics. In the 1998 midterms, Democrats performed well in the wake of Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which led to Speaker Newt Gingrich’s resignation. In 2006, when many on the left wanted to impeach George W. Bush for the Iraq War and other sins, Pelosi took it “off the table” and then went on to become the first female speaker of the House.
But we live in precedent-shattering times. The liberal online activist hub MoveOn.org was founded to encourage people to “move on” from the Clinton impeachment, and the irony is not lost on the group that it’s now calling all candidates for Congress to back Trump’s impeachment. MoveOn’s executive director Anna Galland says Trump’s behavior — such as firing FBI Director James Comey, which Trump himself tied to the Russia investigation — demands it.
Galland knows health care and other pocketbook issues will be foremost in the election, but the Democratic base will require more. “Someone who’s calibrating their campaign as a Democrat in a primary should absolutely be thinking about impeachment as an issue on which they must be on the right side of history and on which they can, if they sound a clarion call, tap into grassroots energy and grassroots outrage at what’s happening to our country,” Galland says.
Primary season launches in March in Texas and Illinois, where Democrats see pickup opportunities and activists around the country will be studying what kinds of nominees emerge — and whose base has more energy. Democrats have shown they are repulsed by Trump and motivated to organize against him. The tide typically tilts against the party in power in a midterm year, and Republicans might well be dispirited by a Congress that has thus far failed to deliver big agenda items such as an Obamacare repeal. But what better way to turn out Trump lovers than to show his presidency hangs in the balance?
One critical battleground is Pennsylvania, where Democrats have their eye on Republican-held seats in the Philadelphia suburbs. Longtime Pennsylvania GOP strategist Charlie Gerow says Trump affinity is stronger in rural areas than in the swing districts that could decide 2018. But if impeachment talk accelerates, Gerow says Republicans will flip it back to run on it themselves. “Republicans will point out the fact that Democrats are offering nothing other than quote-unquote resistance,” Gerow says. “I think most people are turned off by that kind of negativity.”
So far, Sherman’s impeachment resolution has only one co-sponsor. If you want to gauge the anger and urgency of the Democratic base, keep an eye on that number. Republicans surely will.