In one swing district, impeachment hasn’t swayed voters – yet

Matt McClain/AP
House members, media, and others are seen during a House Judiciary Committee markup of articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump in Washington, Dec. 12, 2019.
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An impeachment vote is politically risky for Democratic members of Congress who last year flipped House districts from red to blue. A few House Democrats are likely to vote against impeachment. But here in California’s Orange County, where Democrat Gil Cisneros took a House seat last year, the impeachment saga so far seems not to have changed minds. Most constituents want to talk about “issues that affect their daily lives,” such as taxes, health care, gun violence, and homelessness, says Mr. Cisneros.

But the final chapter of impeachment hasn’t been written, analysts warn. Republicans are working to make the impeachment vote a key talking point against newly elected Democrats in districts that Donald Trump won in 2016. The American Action Network, a nonprofit tied to the GOP House leadership, is targeting 37 House districts nationwide with ads. Locally, Republicans have staged a rally and used social media and email in hopes of firing up their base and swaying independents.

But President Trump is hugely unpopular in California. Says political scientist Fred Smoller here in Orange: “I think it’s going to be a wash.”

Why We Wrote This

Will voters punish moderate Democrats in swing districts for an impeachment vote? Conventional political wisdom says yes. But our reporter found that in one former Republican stronghold that may not be the case.

With Bing Crosby crooning and sleigh bells jingling over a sound system, Becky Haslett attended last week’s holiday open house for Rep. Gil Cisneros with a broad smile. He is one of seven Democrats who flipped House seats from red to blue in California last year.

When Ms. Haslett got her face-to-face opportunity with her congressman, she enthusiastically thanked him for backing impeachment. “He said, ‘Thank you, and I will do my duty. Politics aside, whatever happens, it’s the right thing to do.’ So I said, ‘Yaaaaaaay!’” she recounted, with a sparkle that matched the vintage rhinestones pinned to her powder-blue sweater.

For freshman Democrats in flipped districts, this encounter is telling – and perhaps reassuring. It illustrates how impeachment is largely a reinforcing issue for voters. If you are against President Donald Trump, which the Hasletts most definitely are, a vote for impeachment confirms views already held. If you are for President Trump, which many voters in this historically GOP district are, such a stand underscores your intention to vote that member out of office. 

Why We Wrote This

Will voters punish moderate Democrats in swing districts for an impeachment vote? Conventional political wisdom says yes. But our reporter found that in one former Republican stronghold that may not be the case.

Here’s another take-away from Ms. Haslett. Before thanking Mr. Cisneros for impeachment, she brought up her concerns about an immigration case and a local dam. 

Most constituents want to talk about “issues that affect their daily lives,” such as taxes, health care, gun violence, and homelessness, says Mr. Cisneros in an interview. A former Navy officer, the congressman joined six other Democrats with national security backgrounds in penning an Op-Ed urging Congress to investigate allegations of presidential pressure on Ukraine’s government in exchange for personal, political gain. The Washington Post piece, published in September, played a critical role in persuading wavering Democrats to back a formal inquiry.

But at his most recent town hall in Yorba Linda – the birthplace of former Republican President Richard Nixon – impeachment did not even come up, which surprised his staff.

“Even though impeachment has captured the media’s attention, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a top priority for voters,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Inside Elections. Various national opinion polls show voters are most concerned about issues such as health care, immigration, the border, jobs and the economy, and good governance.

In his latest quarterly review of House races published in December, Mr. Gonzales shifted a dozen races closer to Democrats, and only moved one closer to Republicans. At the moment, Democrats are most likely to maintain their majority in Congress, he concluded. In an interview he said that he has seen nothing over the last two years to indicate that the suburbs – where the swing battles are fought – are getting any better for the president.

And yet, when it comes to impeachment, “it’s too early to know what the political consequences will be, because we don’t know what the story is and how the voters are going to react to it,” he says. “It hasn’t resolved itself yet.”

What polls say

National polls on the subject have been largely static since the Ukraine story picked up steam. Indeed, calls to Mr. Cisneros’s office have been pretty evenly divided, though so far this week, more calls have favored impeachment than not.

“I think it’s going to be a wash,” says Fred Smoller, a political scientist at nearby Chapman University in Orange, California. Professor Smoller keeps a close eye on Orange County, where he conducts an annual opinion survey. Demographic changes, the power of incumbency, and an extremely unpopular president in California all support the idea that the four Democrats who last year flipped GOP seats in the county will keep them, he explains. “They’ve already got the anti-Trump vote. Impeachment is baked into that.”


Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/AP
Rep. Gil Cisneros, D-Calif., walks down the House steps following the last votes of the week in the Capitol on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

On Thursday, the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee was expected to pass two articles of impeachment along party lines. The first one cites “abuse of power” for pressuring a foreign government to interfere in U.S. elections by withholding taxpayer aid and a head-of-state meeting at the White House. The second article is for “obstruction of Congress,” by directing the executive branch not to comply with congressional subpoenas in its investigation.

The full House is expected to vote on them next week, and after passage – presumably along party lines – they will be sent to the Senate for a trial – expected in January – and a vote. Republicans, who control the Senate, will presumably not allow a conviction and removal from office. 

The GOP narrative

Republicans are already hard at work to shape the political narrative in swing districts. They are vastly outspending Democrats with impeachment-related ads, targeting vulnerable Democrats in districts that Trump won in 2016. The ads excoriate the incumbent as a do-nothing lawmaker, focusing on the impeachment “charade” instead of working to solve problems such as the border, health care, and trade.

Some of these Democrats are anxious, and have complained to their leaders about the lack of a vigorous response.

Here in rapidly changing Orange County, once a conservative bastion, none of the four districts that Democrats flipped last year voted for Donald Trump. Neither are they on the list of 37 districts that are being peppered by ads from The American Action Network, a nonprofit tied to the GOP leadership in the House.

But that does not mean Republicans aren’t messaging on impeachment – through social media, email, and in October a rally outside Democratic Rep. Katie Porter’s office in Irvine to protest her pro-impeachment stance.

“There will be a lot more coming,” promises Randall Avila, executive director of the Republican Party of Orange County. Based on incoming calls, impeachment is “firing up” Republicans and internal polling shows independents don’t like it, he says. Impeachment can “make a difference” with independents.

“These Democrats went to Congress promising to get things done on health care, prescription drugs – California has a very big homelessness problem, an affordability problem, traffic. We are up to our ears in issues, real issues that they could be focusing on,” he says.

Some Democrats vulnerable

That message could be undercut, though, now that congressional Democrats have reached a trade deal with President Trump to replace NAFTA. And House Democrats passed a major drug pricing bill on Thursday.

Terry Madonna, a political scientist and pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – a state where two Democrats are being targeted by the American Action Network – says that some vulnerable Democrats will “bail out” on the impeachment vote. Two broke from the party and voted against an impeachment inquiry in October and about 10 moderates have been floating – unsuccessfully – the idea of censure instead of impeachment.

“My general sense is that a few of them are in danger, but probably the majority are not,” says Mr. Madonna, who believes Democrats are likely to retain control of the chamber.

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