Swing-district Democrats doggedly avoided the impeachment debate when they first got to Washington. Now they can’t avoid it.
On the national stage, the party’s posture on impeachment is largely shaped by cable news fixtures like House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff or members of leadership like Pelosi.
But at dozens of town halls over the two-week recess, Brindisi and other vulnerable freshmen had to fend for themselves — serving as the party’s on-the-ground voices on impeachment.
Whether they can deliver a message that resonates could determine Democrats’ chances of winning over the public and holding on to their seats and the House majority in 2020.
Each town hall comes with high stakes and uncertain scenarios — pro-Trump protests or booming cheers for impeachment — and each time, lawmakers are forced to go beyond their leadership’s talking points on the fast-moving scandal consuming the White House.
POLITICO has zeroed in on three House Democrats whose different approaches to impeachment underscore the tensions the party faces.
Outside the New Hartford high school, a group of pro-Trump picketers stood on the manicured lawn shouting “Honk for Trump!” at every car that passed — at times, getting into shouting matches with drivers who didn’t share their politics.
Brindisi’s district went for Trump by more than 15 points in 2016, but inside the packed auditorium, the audience skewed more liberal. There were deafening bursts of applause when Brindisi talked up climate change bills, tighter gun control and a “more humane” border policy.
But there were also cheers when he spoke about telling off his more progressive colleagues on “Medicare for All,” voting against Pelosi’s speakership on the floor and his commitment to working with Trump — showcasing the kind of independent streak that Brindisi’s supporters hope will keep him in Congress.
Brindisi has frustrated some liberals inside and outside Washington for withholding his support for an impeachment inquiry into Trump, though he said he is disturbed by allegations that the president had pressured Ukraine into investigating Joe Biden, a potential 2020 opponent.
“When people talk to me about President Trump, I always said… if he’s doing things that help the state, help the community, help the country, I’ll be the first one to support him,” Brindisi said.
“But if he’s doing things that I think are going to harm this country — I don’t care if it’s Donald Trump or Barack Obama, if he’s doing something that’s going to hurt the country, I’m going to stand up,” Brindisi said, prompting a roar of applause.
Voters of both parties said in interviews afterward that Brindisi is, so far, successfully straddling the issue of impeachment.
But if Brindisi were to vote against articles of impeachment on the floor, some Democratic voters said they would find someone else to support.
“He would lose my vote,” said Lauren Earl, the constituent who confronted Brindisi about impeachment during the town hall. She said she has even raised money for him, but would switch her loyalties if he ultimately voted against impeachment: “I would find somebody to go against him.”
The reluctant supporter
Rep. Susan Wild, a freshman Democrat who flipped a Republican seat held by former centrist GOP Rep. Charlie Dent, told a town hall meeting last week that impeachment “was the last thing in the world” she wanted when she started in Congress.
“I said, ‘It will be a two year distraction,’” Wild told a standing room-only crowd at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. That was her thinking during the 2018 campaign and much of 2019.
It all changed, she said, after the Ukraine scandal erupted. Still, she eagerly touted the party’s domestic agenda and spent relatively little time on impeachment, warning Democrats not to dwell on the investigation.
“Let’s get through this inquiry,” she said. “I hope that it is expeditious. I don’t want to be another Benghazi.” One Trump defender in the audience shouted back, “We never got to the bottom of that.” Nearby, people audibly sighed.
Ten months into her term, Wild is something of a political referee in her district. Her constituents are fiercely divided over their loyalties to the president, in a district that encompasses wealthy, well-educated suburbs as well as blue collar cities once known as oil refinery hubs.
At her town hall meeting on Oct. 2, Wild was forced to intervene as one of her constituents, a local doctor named John Jaffe, spoke up to decry “endless accusations against the president” and was drowned out by booing in the room and shouts for him to sit down.
“Let him speak,” Wild pleaded above loud groans from the crowd as Jaffe decried the “zero facts” in Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Wild — who is a top target for the GOP in 2020 — hasn’t yet faced anti-impeachment ads in her district. But she acknowledged it could happen, after a GOP SuperPAC hit a neighboring Democrat, Rep. Matt Cartwright of Pennsylvania, with attack ads for his stance in support of an inquiry.
Asked by constituents if she believed she might lose her seat over impeachment, Wild said: “As far as political calculations go, I believe that I will be re-elected because of the work I’ve done for the people in this district, not because I went one way or the other on an impeachment inquiry.”
Rep. Sean Casten is one of the rare vulnerable freshmen who has leaned hard into impeachment.
Before Casten won the suburban Chicago district in 2018, it was represented by a Republican for more than 45 years. Clinton narrowly won the district in 2016, but he expected to be grilled on his aggressive posture during a marathon stretch of six town hall meetings last Saturday.
But with a calm demeanor, Casten took on the pro-Trump voters one at a time.
At his first town hall event in South Barrington, Ill., Casten bluntly accused the president and his allies of deliberately lying about Trump’s efforts to pressure foreign leaders to dig up dirt on Biden.
“The fact that they are actively injecting entirely different conversations and conspiracy theories into the zeitgeist in order to force us to talk about that rather than objective truth is the underlying problem,” Casten said.
One voter immediately stood up and accused Casten of trying to sow division, adding: “We put up with eight years of Barack Obama. And President Trump gets elected — people who don’t like Trump should have to put up with him, too.”
Casten was unapologetic, ticking off the evidence contained in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election and hammering Trump over his solicitation of foreign assistance to investigate a political rival.
“There is nothing equivalent about Obama and Trump,” Casten said, prompting some jeers from the audience. “Trump has had multiple members of his administration who have committed felonies or are in jail.”
Another woman, sitting in the front row, raised her voice after Casten criticized Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, saying that the whistleblower’s complaint about the call “looks like a bunch of 13-year-old girls gossiping about the person they don’t like.”
Again, Casten held firm in his criticisms of Trump’s conduct — often sounding like a liberal Democrat who hails from a blue district, rather than a lawmaker trying to placate both sides.
At a later town hall in Clarendon Hills, Ill., a voter asked Casten about a false conspiracy theory spread by Trump and his allies that Ukraine — not Russia — interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Casten responded that he was “sorry” that she had heard that, because it is simply not true.
He then questioned Trump’s efforts to deploy his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to dig up kompromat on Biden in Ukraine, adding of the president: “Some people think he’s playing five-dimensional chess. I just think he’s drooling on the checkers.”
After the series of town halls, Casten reflected on his personal voting history in an interview — revealing that he cast his ballot for George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole in the 1990s and lamenting that the Republican Party no longer resembles the GOP of the past.
“I don’t think my values are any different than they were 20 years ago,” Casten said. “But the Republican Party has run so far to the right and they’ve been so captured by their base that there’s just no home for Bob Doles and the George H.W. Bushes in the party anymore.”