“Not true!” a woman shouted from the back. “Fake news!” said another. “He’s your president, Slotkin!”
But Slotkin (Mich.) kept speaking and kept explaining how she went from a prominent critic of her pro-impeachment colleagues to a reluctant supporter of an inquiry into potentially removing President Trump: “Sometimes there are some moments in life that are beyond politics, and I felt that this moment was that.”
And for 25 seconds, the room echoed with applause.
Days after House Democrats suddenly coalesced behind a formal impeachment investigation, spurred by Trump’s pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a political rival, apprehensive lawmakers faced a two-week stretch at home where they immediately were questioned about their stance amid escalating political tensions, rapidly evolving news developments and a flurry of GOP attacks.
What hasn’t emerged is clear evidence of a political backlash, according to visits to nine lawmaker events and interviews with dozens of voters last week: Pro-Trump protesters picketed outside some of the events while pro-impeachment Democrats cheered inside, but swing voters mostly appeared to steer clear. Instead, echoing recent polling, the move toward impeachment appears only to have widened the existing partisan divide — and plunged the Democrats who ran on rising above it straight into the split.
“I didn’t come to Congress to pursue an impeachment inquiry — it was the last thing in the world I wanted,” freshman Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) told constituents at Allentown’s Muhlenberg College on Wednesday. “Here we are, and all I can say is we are guided by the actions of the administration.”
The audience there was largely supportive of impeachment, although of the two dozen questions, only a couple were on that subject. The rest were on health care, education, climate change and local issues.
“I get impeachment, and I support it at this point, but I’d like to see continued progress in other areas,” said Ian Tauber, a 52-year-old college administrator, who told a reporter before the event that he wanted to hear more about gun legislation.
The task of explaining the snowballing impeachment effort is especially sensitive for freshmen such as Slotkin and Wild, who unseated Republicans last year in districts that voted for Trump in 2016 by running on a platform focused on health care and other pocketbook issues and have spent the 11 months since trying to keep those issues at the forefront. That is now futile, they are acknowledging in various ways, as they look ahead to a possible vote, perhaps as early as this year, and reelection campaigns in 2020.
In Virginia Beach, Rep. Elaine Luria (Va.) reserved a sizable chunk of her Thursday town hall for impeachment questions. In Chicago’s western suburbs, Rep. Sean Casten (Ill.) scheduled a day-long marathon of six impeachment-focused town halls. On Staten Island, Rep. Max Rose (N.Y.) — who initially refrained from endorsing the impeachment investigation — began his town hall Wednesday by declaring his support for the probe. And in Michigan, Slotkin moved two of three planned “coffee hour” events last week to larger, coffee-free venues after the first one drew a crowd that overwhelmed an East Lansing restaurant.
To keep public attention on other issues, several other Democrats have scheduled narrowly tailored events. In Naperville, Ill., on Tuesday, Rep. Lauren Underwood hosted a town hall focused on the “Youth Vaping Epidemic” — one aimed at soliciting input on legislation to curb underage vaping that attracted mainly high school students. Only at the end of the evening did impeachment come up.
“With all that’s going on with impeachment — I can’t believe I’m the first one to mention that — what will the next steps be?” asked Jacob Gorgey, a senior at nearby Waubonsie Valley High School. He referred to vaping laws, not removing Trump.
“Despite other allegations, no one is stopping or pausing,” Underwood said. “We are moving forward.”
About 35 miles north that same night, about 100 people attended Casten’s health-care event in Deer Park, Ill., and they mainly stayed on topic — sharing concerns about the costs of prescription drugs, long-term care and health care generally. Only beforehand to a reporter did Casten venture thoughts about impeachment.
“He betrayed his own oath, he betrayed the country, he put our national security at risk to try and manufacture political dirt on an opponent,” Casten said, citing the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky. “I think we’ve reached the point, this is what we have to do.”
Houston-area Rep. Lizzie Fletcher (Tex.) also stayed topical, spending more than two hours at a community college Friday discussing gun violence with police, doctors and families victimized by shootings. A late endorser of impeachment proceedings, she told reporters she was not concerned about a backlash from her constituents in a district Trump narrowly lost in 2016.
“I want to be able to tell them next year all the things that I’ve done to help the community, whether it is making sure that we get Hurricane Harvey funding here or expand the Port of Houston or tackle the challenges we face with health care or gun violence,” she said. “I’m focused on doing my job, and part of doing my job is making sure that we investigate where necessary, that we protect our national security.”
Rose, a combative New Yorker who has been targeted alongside other Trump-district freshmen, confronted the issue head-on, announcing his late-breaking support for the impeachment probe at an otherwise sedate Staten Island town hall Tuesday. He then pivoted to transportation.
After the National Republican Congressional Committee accused him of “committing political suicide” and other GOP groups targeted him with digital ads, he told reporters he was not especially concerned about his political future.
“They already tried once, and we kicked their a--,” the decorated Army veteran who served in Afghanistan told reporters after the town hall. “Guess what? That’s exactly what is going to happen again. They have been absolute jokes. They will continue to be jokes. And I look forward to beating them by an incredible margin.”
Meanwhile, Slotkin and Luria — both among the seven Democrats with national security backgrounds who backed an impeachment probe in a Sept. 23 Washington Post op-ed that helped persuade House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to initiate the proceedings — have stuck to a much graver tone.
As a small group of Republicans protested outside, Luria set aside time at the top of her town hall Thursday at New Hope Baptist Church to answer written questions exclusively about the inquiry. Of the 15 questions and comments read by the moderator, about half praised her decision and half criticized it.
One person just wrote “thank you” in big letters on an index card. Another wanted to know, “Why are you ignoring your constituents by bolstering impeachment?” Her military-heavy swing district voted for Trump by four points in 2016 and elected her by about half that last year.
Most of the crowd appeared to support Luria, a former Navy commander who received several standing ovations, but at least one vocal detractor shouted during her answers, prompting the moderator to tell him to quiet down or leave.
Faced with a more evenly divided crowd in Michigan on Thursday, Slotkin explained her decision to support the impeachment probe — as Trump supporters challenged her interpretation of the Zelensky phone call, questioned whether former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter ought to be investigated, and pressed the former CIA officer on whether she knows the whistleblower who sparked the Ukraine inquiry. (She does not.)
Only once — after one constituent suggested that Trump “can’t trust the FBI or the CIA right now” — did Slotkin flash impatience: “I know exactly what those people are doing, risking their life every day alongside our military. And, frankly, I have a hard time hearing that, I’ll be honest with you.”
Marcia Dicks, a 71-year-old Republican retiree from nearby Tyrone Township, started her question with a compliment: She was pleasantly surprised by a recent appearance Slotkin made on Fox News Channel and by the letter her office had sent in response to an immigration question.
“But when you fell off the cliff for me was when you joined the coup against our president,” Dicks said, echoing a word Trump himself had used in a tweet earlier that week. “Give me a break: The election’s coming up. If you don’t like him, vote him out if you can.”
“Well, that’s where I was for many, many months,” Slotkin responded. “And I can just tell you my own decision-making, and I know that it’s clearly not popular. But I just felt compelled to do it because I just don’t know where this ends.”
In an interview afterward, Slotkin said she believed her constituents remained more concerned about other issues, pointing to conversations she’s had in more spontaneous settings. At her three public events this week, she spent as much or more time talking about her efforts to lower prescription drug prices and keep the toxic chemicals known as PFAS out of Michigan’s water.
But Slotkin said she had a responsibility to stand in front of her constituents and explain her positions — a view shared by the close-knit group of national security freshmen, who are now comparing notes on the responses they’re getting.
“All of us pretty much knew that this decision was going to be controversial,” Slotkin said. “But coming out and hearing it from your constituents is another thing.”
Phillips reported from Allentown, Pa. Jenna Portnoy in Virginia Beach; David Weigel in New York; Joni Hirsch Blackman in Naperville, Ill.; Susan Berger in Deer Park, Ill.; and Brittney Martin in Houston contributed to this report.