GOP asking activists to heckle California Democrats over impeachment. It’s not working

The fundraising arm of House Republicans has been giddily inviting people unhappy about impeachment to attend town halls hosted by Democrats in purple districts and voice their displeasure.

In California’s Central Valley, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Voters in those areas — full of swing congressional districts that will help determine which party controls the House after next year’s election — are telling congressmen they care more about issues that affect their personal lives, such as health care and the economy.

The purple district Democrats are happy to move on to less controversial topics. And that lines up with what polls say independents tend to want their member of Congress to focus on — something other than impeachment.

Being outspoken on matters related to President Donald Trump “is not what constituents sent members to Washington for,” said Patrick Murray, Monmouth University poll director.

McClatchy reporters over the past month attended town halls in three California battleground districts. The congressmen received few questions about impeachment, and only one Trump supporter spoke up at the four events reporters attended.

Two of the town halls were held by freshmen representatives who last year unseated Republican incumbents from the San Joaquin Valley. Reps. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, and TJ Cox, D-Fresno, were among the last Democrats to issue statements endorsing an impeachment inquiry.

Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of Elk Grove, held two public town halls over the past five weeks that reporters attended. He won his district spanning Sacramento’s suburbs by narrow margins in 2014 and 2016. Voters at his town halls generally told him they support impeachment.

“Anyone who’s read the Mueller report knows the president has probably committed impeachable offenses,” Bera said during a Sept. 3 town hall. “My job is to build that case.”

“The case is there!” an attendee yelled back, to rapturous applause.

On Tuesday, Bera held another town hall where one person wore a Make America Great Again cap and pressed the congressman on impeachment. Other questions from attendees focused on the process of impeachment.

Both Harder and Cox could face difficult reelection campaigns in 2020. Cox in 2018 beat his opponent by fewer than 1,000 votes. That opponent, former Rep. David Valadao, is challenging him again in 2020.

Harder has four Republican challengers for 2020.

“Josh didn’t get any questions on impeachment when he was home last week,” said Ian Lee, a spokesman for Harder. “People are more interested in asking about things that affect their every day lives — like health care, education, and immigration.”

“He’s gotten about as much mail and phone calls about animal rights as impeachment,” Lee added.

That town hall, held at Modesto Junior College for students, mostly centered on concerns about gun control, mental health and feeling safe at school. Impeachment did not come up.

“Actually, impeachment questions have only come up from reporters,” Harder said after the town hall. “Folks look at the community and see immediate challenges here. They seem to want my office to focus on those issues.”

‘Impeachment fever’

It’s not for lack of trying on the part of the National Republican Congressional Committee. It sent out emails titled “IMPEACHMENT ADVISORY” encouraging people who did not support impeachment to go to town halls hosted by both Harder and Cox.

“Constituents upset with Cox’s refusal to address the issues important to CA-21 residents are encouraged to attend,” one of the emails read, which called a town hall last week on the health issue Valley Fever an “Impeachment Fever Town Hall.”

The impeachment issue never came up during that town hall, according to Cox’s office, which centered on health. It was the first town hall he hosted since he expressed support for the inquiry.

A second town hall hosted by Cox Tuesday night did get one question on impeachment, when one participant asked: “Suppose the House and Senate dump Trump. Would the House accept (Vice President Mike) Pence as President?”

Cox responded that he wants to see where the facts of the impeachment inquiry lead, and if Trump “quits,” the Constitution determines Pence will “step up.” He also said he felt voters would rather hear about health care and other issues. It didn’t come up again during the town hall.

A participant asked him a question on former Vice President Joe Biden’s involvement in Ukraine after the town hall had ended, and Cox responded that Biden has “been exonerated by anybody who matters.”

Spokeswoman for the NRCC Torunn Sinclair called Cox “obsessed” with impeachment.

Cox’s only public comment supporting the impeachment inquiry, aside from his response to the town hall question, came immediately after the launch of the inquiry was announced.

Prescription drugs and jobs

While interest in impeachment has increased since news broke last month about Trump’s July 25 call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, when he pressured Zelensky to investigate former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, Trump’s approval rating has remained at roughly the same levels it’s occupied almost since he took office.

If anything, partisan positions have hardened in recent weeks, a national Monmouth University September poll found.

Independent voters, though, “have felt Donald Trump was a sideshow,” said poll director Murray.

An Oct. 1-6 Washington Post-Schar School poll found that 58 percent of Americans said the House was correct to begin an impeachment inquiry, while 49 percent said the House should impeach the president and call for his removal from office. If impeached, the Senate would conduct a trial, and 67 votes would be needed to convict.

Sixty-nine congressional districts are said to be in play next year, 40 now held by Democrats and 29 by Republicans, according to an analysis by Inside Elections, a nonpartisan research group.

Thirty-one seats are in districts Trump won in 2016 but a Democratic House member won two years later.

Republicans need a net gain of 19 seats next year to win control of the House.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has long realized that path to victory for the vulnerable Democratic incumbents does not go through the White House. The California Democrat resisted opening an impeachment inquiry until news broke about the Ukraine call.

And even after it did, she tried to get the media to write about other issues. She began her weekly press conference last week talking about trade and prescription drug prices, and insisted the first questions from reporters involve only those subjects.

Pelosi, though, has to tackle a procedural issue that could help determine the fate of the vulnerable incumbents: Timing.

There’s considerable sentiment among eager pro-impeachment Democrats to have a quick process, perhaps a House vote before Thanksgiving. In 1998, the House Judiciary Committee voted October 5 to begin an impeachment inquiry and the House impeached President Bill Clinton December 19. He was acquitted in 1999 in the Senate.

“We don’t want this to drag on months and months and months, which appears to be the administration’s strategy,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Burbank.

But there’s concern among others that such a process that looked rushed would look too much like an all-out attack.

“I’m gonna always encourage us to be as methodical, careful and slow as possible,” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-New Jersey. Trump won his district in 2016 by 4 points.

The Modesto Bee’s ChrisAnna Mink, The Sacramento Bee’s Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks and Paul Kitagaki Jr. and The Fresno Bee’s Brianna Calix contributed to this report.
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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.