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Their voters backed Trump. They voted to impeach him. Now what?

Trump-district Democrats eager to pivot forward. Republicans say not so fast

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., talks to reporters after a meeting of the House Democratic Caucus in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

CLARKSTON, Mich. — Jeff Noftz, a bicycle shop owner in this quaint suburb, can’t wait to see Donald Trump go. Just a few blocks north on Main Street, Christina Calka, who owns a women’s boutique, defended Trump and thought the entire impeachment process has been a “waste of time.”

At Union Kitchen and Bar, a converted church known for its mac and cheese, Marcie Wagner compared Trump’s presidency to being married to an alcoholic. She’s more concerned about the direction of the country than ever before. “I’ve found myself actually weeping,” the 56-year-old psychotherapist said.

But behind Wagner sat John Gwynne Prosser, 58, a Trump supporter who said he knows people who have shifted to more favorable views of the president after watching the impeachment process.

Just in this one small town, in a district Trump carried by 7 points in 2016, voters have been divided on impeachment. And it’s up to freshman Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who voted Wednesday night to impeach Trump, to try to talk to all of them.

[How House members who are most vulnerable in 2020 voted]

Her challenge is one that faces more than two dozen other Democrats in districts Trump carried as they head home after casting one of the most controversial and historic votes of their careers.

It’s too early to predict the political repercussions, but consultants from both sides of the aisle told CQ Roll Call that Democrats’ task is twofold: They must explain their position, then quickly change the subject to the issues that helped secure their 2018 victories.

Preparing to pivot

Slotkin got a head start Monday, where she faced her constituents at a town hall just a few hours after announcing she would support both articles of impeachment against Trump.

Slotkin focused first on issues like prescription drug prices, Medicare coverage and the trade deal known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, garnering applause from the crowd. The House will vote on USMCA before it leaves Washington for its holiday recess.

This affluent, conservative area is slowly changing. And its well-educated voters — many of them working white-collar jobs tied to the auto industry — are the kinds of voters Democrats are trying to win over, largely by talking about other issues.

Democrats still believe health care is a winning issue for them in 2020, and Slotkin and the other Democrats in Trump districts are expected to talk much more about prescription drug prices than why they voted to impeach Trump.

“Health care is the reason I got in this race,” Slotkin told her constituents.

The opportunity to change the subject came quickly.

An hour before the vote was scheduled, Lauren Underwood of Illinois held a hastily scheduled press call on a decision by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday afternoon on a Trump administration-backed lawsuit to overturn the 2010 health care law known as Obamacare.

“The American people sent a resounding message in 2018 that they wanted healthcare protected and that is not being honored by the administration and the court,” she said. “The House Democrats are here to protect pre-existing conditions for the people.”

Underwood was one of the last Democrats in Trump districts to announce that she would vote for impeachment. She declined to take any questions on the impeachment vote.

Twenty-nine of the 31 Democrats in districts Trump won voted to impeach him, including one Democrat who supported one article of impeachment but not the other. They said this was a moral decision, not a political one, and acknowledged their votes could lead to their defeat.

Republicans have argued that the House’s move to impeach will turn voters against Democrats, but operatives involved in House races aren’t convinced impeachment will cost them the majority.

“I don’t think anyone signs their death warrant a year from the election,” said Ian Russell, the former political director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Democrats are skeptical about the perils of impeachment for two reasons: It could be a distant memory by Nov. 3, 2020, and voters care more about other issues.

“This doesn’t relate to voters’ own economic interests,” Russell said.

The Trump campaign released polling on the eve of the impeachment vote that underscored Russell’s point. Those surveyed overwhelmingly said lowering prescription drug prices, passing new trade deals and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure were more important than impeachment.

The poll, conducted by Fabrizio Lee, surveyed 900 likely voters across 30 districts held by Democrats that Trump won. It excluded New Jersey’s 2nd District, where Democratic Rep. Jeff Van Drew, who voted against impeachment, is expected to switch parties.

New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Brindisi, whose district Trump carried by 15 points in 2016, told CQ Roll Call off the House floor on Wednesday that he did not believe his vote to impeach Trump would impact his reelection prospects.

“Most people in my district are not focused on impeachment,” Brindisi said. “They are focused on the kitchen table issues.”

That’s why Brindisi and other Democrats are quick to talk about other issues even as impeachment consumes the news cycle. The Democratic outside group House Majority Forward has spent $2.5 million on ads focused not on impeachment, but on a bill Democrats passed last week aimed at lowering the cost of prescription drugs and using the savings to expand Medicare to provide vision, hearing and dental coverage.

Republicans say Democrats want to pivot to other issues because voters don’t support impeachment. In the Trump campaign poll, 53 percent of those surveyed opposed impeachment, while 43 percent supported it.

“They have to change the subject,” said Rob Simms, former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. “Will that prove to be particularly effective? I think that’s to be determined.”

Not so fast

Simms said impeachment may not be the main motivating factor for moderate voters, but it will damage first-term Democrats who ran on promises to be independent and bipartisan.

“Is the issue of impeachment something that can be used to show how these Democrats are out of touch with their voters? Absolutely. And that is the risk for them,” Simms said.

Republicans are betting that impeachment will loom larger in voters’ minds next November than anything else that happens in Congress in the coming months. And they are going to do their best to keep Democrats from changing the subject, blanketing swing districts with impeachment-related advertising as focus shifts to a Senate trial.

Calvin Moore, spokesman for Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, said the impeachment vote will be “an albatross” to vulnerable Democrats.

“It will be memorable to voters because it is so polarizing,” he said. “This is a vote that reminds folks at home that their member of Congress is a Democrat because it inevitably pushes people in their partisan corners.”

Republican consultant Cam Savage made a similar point.

“It is very difficult for a member of Congress, especially a freshman, to be known in a detailed way by constituents,” he said. “This will be the one thing their constituents know about them.”

Conservative groups have already been spending millions of dollars on impeachment-related advertising in swing districts, an effort that has not been matched by Democrats.

After the impeachment vote, the American Action Network, a conservative issue advocacy group tied to CLF, announced it would spend an additional $2.5 million on television and digital ads targeting Democrats in Trump districts. The group had previously spent $8.5 million on ads claiming Democrats’ focus on impeachment has sidelined other issues.

Republican strategists also suggested the impeachment vote could help energize Trump voters, just as the divisive confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh galvanized GOP voters in Senate races in Republican-leaning states in 2018. Both the RNC and the NRCC have said there are an estimated 8 million Trump voters who didn’t turn out in 2018.

“This issue of impeachment, for the larger group of Trump supporters, is going to be a motivating factor like Kavanaugh times one thousand,” Simms said.

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