WASHINGTON — In late May, with a tornado warning in effect, about a hundred people showed up at a town hall with Rep. Madeleine Dean in her southeast Pennsylvania district.
“We weren’t eight minutes into the doggone thing … when somebody said, ‘When are you going to go for impeachment?’” Dean recalled in a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “When I made my explanation that I had made my decision for an impeachment inquiry, the room applauded. I think it was 90-plus percent — 97% — of people in that room were very pleased.”
Dean’s experience in her district isn’t unique. More than 70 members of the House of Representatives have come out in support of an inquiry into impeaching President Trump, including some of the most electorally vulnerable members of the Democratic Caucus. That’s all happening in spite of the fact that the party’s campaign arm has repeatedly argued that voters don’t care about impeachment and that pursuing an inquiry could lose representatives their seats.
Before she officially supported an inquiry, Dean said she had a number of interactions with constituents who pressed her to pursue an inquiry, and lately, she said she’s been keeping an unofficial tally of calls to her office.
“It’s a small sampling, I don’t doubt that. But we do get calls … [and] as I read my reports each week, people want to know where I am on impeachment,” she said. When her staff explains Dean supports it, her constituents are “mostly pleased.”
Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, one of the House’s more moderate members to come out in support of an inquiry, said that it was his constituents who ultimately convinced him it was the right thing to do.
“All of them were urging me to speak with clarity and conviction,” he said, noting many of them pushed him to consider the way the history books will cover the Trump administration.
“I resisted that a little bit, and I said, ‘No, hey, look, I’m not sure how this affects 2020 politics, I’m not sure how it sits in my district,’” Himes said. But at the end of the week, while sitting home with a beer, Himes said it hit him. “I thought, ‘Son of a gun, they’re right and I’m wrong.’”
Multiple House Democrats who support starting an impeachment inquiry say it’s primarily because their constituents want them to. Their ranks are growing, despite repeated warnings from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that it’s not politically expedient to do so.
“I can tell you I never hear somebody bring up the Mueller report,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, an Illinois representative and the chair of the Democratic National Campaign Committee (DCCC) said of voters in her district during an appearance at the City Club of Chicago in May.
According to a Washington Post report from around the same time, Bustos, in a meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, pointed to DCCC focus groups wherein voters ranked Robert Mueller’s inquiry low on their list of priorities as a specific reason why pursuing an impeachment inquiry would not be valuable.
As one national Democratic strategist painted it, vulnerable Democrats are facing two totally divergent realities: When they’re at home, voters want to hear about kitchen table issues, but when they come to DC, the press is focused solely on impeachment.
But some of those very same Democrats are beginning to tell a different story.
In a video posted to Twitter last month, Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat who flipped a GOP stronghold last fall, became just the second member in a group known as the “frontline” Democrats — members who flipped seats held by Republicans or those the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee believes could be in danger of losing their seats — to call for impeachment.
In the video, she said she came to the decision after many conversations with families in her district.
“I didn’t come to Congress to impeach the president. I ran to use my decades of consumer advocacy to help Orange County families,” she said. “I ran to fight back against Big Pharma and outrageous prescription drug pricing, to help families with the crushing costs of child care, and to take on the affordable housing crisis hurting our community, and I will continue to do those things and much more, but when faced with a crisis of this magnitude, I cannot with a clean conscience ignore my duty to defend the Constitution.”
Her fight against corruption has to, she said, extend to the Trump administration.
Some close allies of Pelosi’s have begun to break ranks too, like California Rep. Eric Swalwell.
“Frankly, my district is overwhelmingly for impeachment,” Swalwell told BuzzFeed News. “I was reserved in a way that I wanted to give Donald Trump a fairer trial than he probably deserved.”
Rep. Jared Huffman, also of California, characterized the response from his constituents in the same way. They are, he said, “Overwhelmingly in favor of strong accountability including impeachment.”
So too did Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. “I was getting a lot of calls, emails, I would run into people and they would just say ‘impeachment, impeachment, impeachment,” she said.
Rep. Brenda Lawrence of Michigan said she has also been “inundated” with calls and comments from constituents. “What are you going to do?” she said they ask. “How long are you going to … just wave your hands and say ‘I’m not going to do it’? There’s no accountability.”
And Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia said it’s the same in his district.
“I don’t think I’ve talked to a single person in person — and I’m out all the time — who has criticized my position,” he said. “I do have a number of folks I’ve talked to say ‘Boy, don’t impeach, because you’re going to hurt the next election,’ but I have to say overwhelmingly it’s been positive.”
Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, a longtime impeachment supporter, said he’s seen his constituents’ thinking evolve. In the last four months or so, he said he’s held 15 town halls in the district.
“I have noticed that with each passing week there have been more questions about impeachment,” he said. “I did three town halls last weekend, and in all three places the overwhelming majority of people who showed up were in favor of my position … It wasn’t always like that.”
Rep. Katie Hill, a freshman Democrat who also flipped a California GOP stronghold last year, has not come out in support of an inquiry, but she told the Post calls to her office have been 20-to-1 in favor of impeachment. Reportedly, after speaking publicly about wrestling with the decision, Hill received a call from the DCCC telling her to dial it back.
Inarguably, impeachment proceedings would be divisive, as Pelosi has often said, and no matter what happens in the House, impeachment has no chance of succeeding in the Republican-controlled Senate.
And certainly, in some districts, impeaching Trump is unpopular and Republicans are out to make that point: In a recent poll from the GOP’s House campaign arm of voters in several battleground districts, a majority of respondents said they opposed impeachment.
But while the DCCC, too, has often argued the public doesn’t support impeachment, one of its own pollsters told BuzzFeed News that she’s found that Democrats strongly favor an inquiry.
“It’s super, super partisan,” the pollster, Molly Murphy, said. “If you’re a Republican, you’re strongly against it; if you’re a Democrat, you’re strongly for it.”
But, she said, the challenge for Democrats is a question of perception versus reality. The view among many voters, according to her research, Murphy said, is that congressional investigations into the Trump campaign have dragged on for months and are at least partially to blame for increasing partisanship.
“The perception can be less about the facts and merits of the case and more about one party in Washington trying to stop the other party in Washington,” she said. “What these candidates need to keep in mind is yes, there’s an expectation that members of Congress need to do multiple things at once.”
Murphy said she wouldn’t advise a candidate to be for or against opening an inquiry, but said she does see it as “a narrow focus in this moment in time” that’s not a top priority for voters and that, “realistically, voters expect members of Congress to prioritize the things that are most important to them.” After publication, Murphy sent an additional statement arguing the research continues to show voters they need to turn out in 2020 care more about issues other than impeachment.
"[I]ndependent voters who were instrumental in the 2018 Democratic House takeover largely reject impeachment and want Congress to focus on issues like health care and the economy that impact their daily lives," she said.
Notably, Rep. Andy Levin of Michigan told BuzzFeed News that prioritizing the things most important to his constituents is a major reason why he chose to support an inquiry, to streamline the House’s investigations into the president, which currently span multiple committees.
“The Democratic activist base really wants to see an impeachment inquiry,” he said. “The broader public, whatever they think about that, they want us to solve their problems … Ironically — or maybe not ironically — that’s one of the reasons I decided to be for an impeachment inquiry, because we need to show we’re moving on this quickly and efficiently.”
This post has been updated with an additional statement from Molly Murphy.