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Democrats in Trump districts wrestle with ‘vote of conscience’ on impeachment

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/15/2019 Christal Hayes and Ledyard King, USA TODAY
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WASHINGTON – Rep. Elissa Slotkin can tell when another TV ad criticizing her recent vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump has just aired in her central Michigan district: the angry calls to her congressional office spike.

As a Democrat representing a district Trump won handily in 2016, the former CIA analyst is used to navigating choppy political waters on a host of controversial issues. But now with a historic vote to impeach the president just days away, the freshman is facing the toughest moment of her nascent career on Capitol Hill.

a group of people posing for the camera: WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24:  Rep. Abigail Spanberger (C) (D-VA) and Rep. Elaine Luria (R) (D-VA) are trailed by reporters after leaving a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol where formal impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump were announced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Spanberger and Luria are two of seven freshman members of the House with national intelligence or military backgrounds who recently spoke out in an opinion piece calling for an investigation of Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775410837 ORIG FILE ID: 1176873972 © Win McNamee, Getty Images WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: Rep. Abigail Spanberger (C) (D-VA) and Rep. Elaine Luria (R) (D-VA) are trailed by reporters after leaving a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol where formal impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump were announced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Spanberger and Luria are two of seven freshman members of the House with national intelligence or military backgrounds who recently spoke out in an opinion piece calling for an investigation of Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775410837 ORIG FILE ID: 1176873972

"There’s over $1 million in attack ads running in my district on this issue. I knew when I called for an inquiry, it would be controversial," Slotkin recently told USA TODAY. "You just have to watch my town halls to know it has been."

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She’s not alone.

Thirty other Democrats from Trump districts, most of whom are freshmen, will be casting votes on the politically volatile issue this week. With hard-liners on both sides dug in, those centrists will be the ones deciding whether Trump becomes the third president ever to be impeached. 

More: For 3rd time in US history, full House to vote on impeachment of a president

So far, the handful of Trump district Democrats who have announced how they'll vote are breaking in favor of impeaching the president on at least one of the two articles – abuse of power and obstruction of Congress – that the House Judicatory Committee approved Friday.

The panel passed both articles 23-17 along party lines, putting impeachment before the full House as soon as Wednesday.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi D-Calif., isn't strong-arming rank-and-file Democrats to support impeachment, calling it a vote of conscience. But to help them, she and her deputies have found ways to entice moderates to support such a politically risky move.

Party leaders kept the articles narrowly focused on Trump's conduct with Ukraine and not on broader charges progressives pushed for, including the president's finances, hush-money deals with women, and the findings of the Mueller report.

Not happy: 'Disgusted.' Trump rails against Democrats after impeachment vote, backs short Senate trial

The articles pertain to allegations Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine, an ally, to go after political rival Joe Biden in a way that would benefit the president's 2020 re-election, and then tried to cover it up by stonewalling Congress from getting records or witness testimony.

Moderates said it also helped that leadership scheduled the final impeachment vote to be sandwiched between votes on two key issues: ratification of a new North American trade agreement and spending bills that include priorities for their districts.

That's given centrists the ability to counter the charge from GOP lawmakers that the obsession to impeach has smothered any ability to get things done on Capitol Hill.

"My main thrust is to get people to know that Congress hasn’t stopped working," said Arizona Rep. Tom O'Halleran, a second-term Democrat representing a Trump district.  "And there’s a perception out there that it has. And it’s really a bad perception. We’re continuing to have committee hearings and everything else."

But voting to endorse the removal of a president who remains popular among many constituents won't be an easy sell for Democrats in red districts.

Slotkin was part of the blue wave in 2018 that flipped the House to Democratic control. Because two-thirds of those Trump-district Democrats have been in office for less than a year, they lack the advantage of long-term incumbency that could help them weather a risky vote in a battleground district.

And their 2020 Republican challengers are watching.

Read the articles: Read the full text of the articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump

As soon as Rep. Conor Lamb, a Pennsylvania Democrat who represents a Trump district, told a local TV station Thursday he would support impeachment, GOP opponent Sean Parnell pounced.

"Hey @ConorLambPA, today you sold out the vast majority of people in Western Pennsylvania by supporting this sham," he tweeted. "You put your party, BEFORE the will of the people you promised to represent. The people of Western Pennsylvania deserve better. #PA17"

On Saturday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted out the names, office numbers and Twitter handles of each of the 31 Trump district Democrats to his 4.1 million followers, urging them to "Call non-stop, tweet at them, tell them this will NOT STAND & you’ll remember in Nov!"

The possibility of Democrats defecting

With a full Hose vote approaching, at least seven of the Trump district Democrats, including Lamb, have said they plan to back impeachment.

Only one so far – Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey – has come out in opposition. The Democrat is expected to announce this week he is switching parties and becoming a Republican following a torrent of criticism from progressive Democrats about his stance.

A second – Collin Peterson of Minnesota – is expected to vote against it as well. They'll be joining the chamber's 197 Republicans, none of whom have expressed support for impeachment.

With 233 seats and independent Justin Amash of Michigan supporting impeachment, Democrats could lose up to 18 members and still have the 216 needed to impeach Trump. 

Van Drew: 'Unsavory,' not impeachable: Democratic lawmaker explains why he opposes removing Trump

The lack of bipartisan support, which Pelosi initially said was necessary for impeachment, has given opponents ammunition to dismiss the process as the partisan witch hunt Trump has so often labeled it. That criticism is likely to grow louder even if just a few Democrats join them.

In a story first reported by Politico and confirmed by USA TODAY, a group of Democratic moderates, including several representing red districts, briefly explored the idea of proposing a resolution to censure the president rather than impeach, believing a verbal rebuke is a more appropriate remedy than calling for removal.

While these Democrats say they realize a censure will not be considered, the idea showed a discontent by some of the caucus' most vulnerable members and raised questions over how they might vote.

A tough spot for moderates

For the 31 Trump district Democrats, it's a tough spot: vote for impeachment and risk losing the fragile coalition of swing voters that carried them into office last year or vote against it and face the wrath of progressives who want Trump punished.

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There's already talk of a Democratic primary challenger next year against Van Drew.

The message that helped many freshman Democrats win in 2018 was a promise not to become immersed in the "circus atmosphere" surrounding the president, including partisan warfare, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute in New Jersey.

"That's the trick: there are two sides of this," he said. "You definitely have to thread that needle between keeping the base excited that you're still fighting the good fight and keeping the moderates in line by saying I was able to do the job that you sent me to Washington to do."

Rep. Elaine Luria, whose Virginia district went to Trump by about 4 points, said she will vote for impeachment. But she also said it's important to show constituents that impeachment is not stymieing progress on bread-and-butter issues.

On Wednesday, she attended a White House ceremony with the president where he signed an executive order on anti-Semitism.

"I'll stand with the president and next to the President when he does something right," she said. "But I'll stand up to him when he does something wrong." 

'An invitation to the enemies'

Many of the 31 Democrats in red districts told USA TODAY they have yet to make up their mind on impeachment and are still reviewing documents, notably the 300-page Trump-Ukraine impeachment inquiry report the House Intelligence Committee issued.

But O'Halleran, the Arizona congressman, a former Chicago homicide detective who represents a district Trump won in 2016, said he has decided to back impeachment after reviewing the evidence much like he would a criminal investigation.

"I will vote to impeach the President because this bribery and abuse of power violated the constitution and put our national security and our international relationships at risk," he said. "In our democracy, we must hold elected officials accountable when they break the public trust and put their own interests before the good of our nation."

Rep. Max Rose of Staten Island, whose New York City district went for Trump by nearly 10 points, also is backing impeachment.

a chair sitting in front of a mirror posing for the camera: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., reads a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 24, 2019. © Andrew Harnik, AP House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., reads a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 24, 2019.

He was one of the moderates whose opposition to a broad set of impeachment articles helped convince Democratic leadership the charges needed to focus only on Ukraine.

"A president coercing a foreign government into targeting American citizens is not just another example of scorched-earth politics, it serves as an invitation to the enemies of the Unities States to come after any citizen, so long as they disagree with the president," he said.

No 'hate': Nancy Pelosi gives a sharp response to a reporter who asked if she hates President Trump

Earlier in the week, the former Army veteran who served in Afghanistan reflected on the magnitude of the decision, noting it was deserving of time and deliberation.

 "I mean everyone's doing different things from calling key people in their life to pick their brain to rereading the intelligence reports, the testimonies, to some probably are praying,” he said.

Impeachment not a constituent priority

As monumental as their vote will be to the nation and their political legacies, many moderates interviewed said impeachment is not an issue that dominates back home. Constituents would rather talk about health care, the economy or trade, they said.

But in case the severity of the decision is not lost on them, Republicans keep reminding them.

Centrists win: In hard-line Congress, moderates boosted with Trump impeachment articles, trade deal

After Pelosi announced earlier this month that the House would move forward on drafting articles of impeachment, Brad Parscale, Trump's campaign manager, tweeted out polling in Democratic freshman Rep. Kendra Horn's Oklahoma district. 

"Nancy Pelosi is marching members of her caucus off the plank and into the abyss," he wrote. "Impeachment is killing her freshmen members and polling proves it." 

Although Horn told USA TODAY she has not decided on impeachment, her constituents in the district Trump won by more than 13 points already have reached a verdict judging from the calls that flood her office from both sides.

"People have already made up their minds," she said. "I'm still of the mind that it is our job to take a look at all the information and assess it in a fair and balanced way."

Slotkin said she's reading the transcripts from the testimony provided by the Intelligence Committee, studying the rules of the House, and speaking to members from both parties who were in Congress during Bill Clinton's impeachment 21 years ago. 

"I’m going to do what I was trained to do as a CIA officer, which is sit down with the full body of information and make an objective decision based on what I believe the facts are," she said. "I’m not looking at polling. I’m not looking at consultants. I’m not weighing what this will do to my political career. I think this is beyond politics."

Contributing: Nicholas Wu

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democrats in Trump districts wrestle with ‘vote of conscience’ on impeachment

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