The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Impeachment has commanded widespread attention. The political impact may be more muted.

Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) talks to constituents and protesters on Monday at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

As Democratic members of Congress spoke in somber tones this week to announce their support for impeaching President Trump, top officials at the Republican National Committee dispatched provocateurs to jeer and heckle them in their home districts.

The resulting clashes — from Michigan to New Mexico to Florida — earned the GOP some viral moments, but were limited to a couple dozen districts across the nation, making the potential impact more muted than it might have appeared.

Partisan divisions are so ingrained at this point that the political battle for impeachment has been playing out in just a few places for the attention of a narrow subset of voters — people who had supported President Trump in 2016 and then a Democrat for Congress two years later.

The overall dynamic in those places has left the two parties applying radically different responses to the historic impeachment: Democratic politicians who need crossover voters to win again in 2020 have done everything they can to show that their support of impeachment transcends partisanship or any personal animus with the president. Republicans, hoping to revive partisan allegiance, have tried to take the circus to a whole new level.

“General disruption is what we are looking for,” said Rick Gorka, a Republican National Committee spokesman, who helped organize a raucous disruption at a town hall by Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) on Monday. “We are going to fight back.”

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When the dust clears, the result is most likely to look more like a draw than a victory, say political strategists from both sides. Ten weeks of the House impeachment inquiry have spun an already polarized country through yet another centrifuge of outrage, further separating champions of the president from those who see him a danger to the country.

Yet polls suggest few have been converted in their views of Trump by the allegations about his dealings with Ukraine, though the president has once again been shown to have behaved in a way most Americans do not like.

“I am confident that not a single Democrat anywhere in the country next year will lose their seat because they voted for impeachment,” said Geoff Garin, a top Democratic pollster who has been fielding surveys in recent weeks on the issue.

House Democrats are expected to vote on two articles of impeachment against the president Wednesday, with no Republican support and minimal defections. In the past six months, one Republican, Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, has left the party in protest of Trump’s behavior, and one Democrat, Rep. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, has made moves to become a Republican in protest of impeachment.

Nationally, polling slightly favors Democrats on the most crucial questions about Trump’s behavior. Americans are split on whether Trump should be impeached and removed, and majorities believe that his behavior with respect to Ukraine was troubling — far from “perfect,” as the president likes to proclaim. But the support for punishing Trump with either impeachment or removal has yet to rise above his relatively constant disapproval number nationwide in most polls.

CNN found 55 percent of Americans disapproved of his job performance in early September, before Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, compared with 53 percent who disapprove of his performance today.

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The impacts are more pronounced in those places where members of Congress or senators must win election with cross-party appeals. Democrats including Slotkin in 2018 won a raft of districts carried by Trump two years earlier, but those seats are at risk when the president returns to the ballot in 2020. In the Senate, however, it is Republicans who hold seats in states that are moving in the other party’s direction and are more at risk.

In the House races, ad purchases by both Republicans and Democrats have focused on the same question: Have new members of Congress from districts that have significant Trump support been neglecting other legislative priorities to pursue impeachment?

“I am not convinced that anybody is in significant danger but the small number that represent the other team’s area, and there are a lot fewer than there used to be,” said Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, who has done work for the American Action Network, a group that has spent about $8.5 million on impeachment ads attacking Democrats.

Focus groups and polling by both parties have shown that impeachment could prove a real danger to incumbent Democrats if voters come to believe they are focused on Trump instead of other priorities.

As a result, Pelosi has told her caucus members to focus their public messaging on other priorities, like a bill passed last week to allow Medicare to negotiate the price of prescription drugs and a new North American trade deal that will be voted on Thursday.

At her event Monday, Slotkin seemed to delight in the jeers she received while explaining her support for the Trump-negotiated trade measure.

“This is something he suggested, folks,” Slotkin told the disrupters at her event in Rochester, Mich.

The political ad wars have also been fought along this battle line. House Majority Forward, a nonprofit allied with Pelosi, released a suite of ads last week praising members of Congress for passing the drug negotiation bill. House Majority PAC, an affiliated group, is preparing a $10 million campaign to amplify the effort, with money donated by billionaire presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg.

“Constituents really want to know what their members are doing to deliver for their districts, and that’s the thrust behind this strategy,” said Caitlin Legacki, a spokeswoman for the groups.

Democrats are banking on voters caring more about other issues in November. Garin, who polls for the Democratic-leaning group Law Works, said he thinks any opposition to impeaching Trump will be balanced by Democrats’ advantages on bread-and-butter issues, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices.

Republicans, meanwhile, have made the opposite argument in their advertising, which regularly accuses Democrats in swing districts of focusing on impeachment to the exclusion of anything else.

“No progress on health care, securing the border or job-creating trade deals,” the standard American Action Network ad running in multiple districts announces. “No progress for us.”

Republicans are hopeful that the legislative movement by House Democrats and their accompanying campaign will not be enough to withstand the media focus on impeachment.

“The Democrats can talk all day about whatever bill they want, but if no one at home is actually paying attention, then it’s not going to make one bit of difference,” said Calvin Moore, a spokesman for the American Action Network. “Turn on the nightly news, the only thing getting coverage is impeachment. An issue this toxic, this polarizing, sucks up all the oxygen in the room and makes it impossible to break through on anything else.”

When the proceedings move to the Senate, where there are more Republican incumbents playing defense in Democratic-trending states, the dynamics are likely to switch.

Republican senators in Colorado, Maine, Arizona and North Carolina face reelection in states where Trump’s approval has declined since the 2016 election, putting them in the same position as the Trump-leaning district Democrats in the House. They must hold their base voters while trying to appeal to others who don’t approve of Trump’s behavior in office.

The Colorado Democratic Party, for instance, has counted 19 times that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) has declined to directly answer whether it was appropriate for Trump to ask the president of Ukraine to look into former vice president Joe Biden’s role in the country.

“Republican Senators have shown they don’t have the courage or independence to stand up to the White House, and this is another example of their failure,” Lauren Passalacqua, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement, echoing the very argument Republicans are making about House Democrats and their leaders.

A spokesman for Gardner did not respond to a request for comment.