Peter Plavchan Sr. put on his red Make America Great Again hat Tuesday night and settled into the front row of a town hall meeting with his new congressional representative, Democrat Antonio Delgado, in the rural Hudson Valley.
When his time came to speak, Plavchan didn’t hold back. “I can’t quite say you represent me,” he told Delgado in a packed room of about 100 people, citing the impeachment inquiry that both Delgado and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) formally supported last week. “I would like you to identify tonight the exact crimes that you think have been committed, the crime that caused you to [support] impeachment.”
But in a 70-minute meeting, that was the only time a constituent raised the issue.
Democratic lawmakers are at home in their districts for a two-week recess from Washington, providing them their first opportunities to hear directly from voters since the House began a formal impeachment inquiry against President Trump last week.
But at three town hall meetings in Pennsylvania and New York districts that voted for Trump in 2016, backlash to the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was rare and only from loyal Trump supporters — not the key independent and moderate voters that Democrats will need for victory in 2020 in Congress and the White House.
Freshman Democrat Rep. Max Rose represents a district that voted for Trump by an even bigger margin than Delgado’s and was one of the last remaining holdouts against the impeachment inquiry, a reflection of his moderate constituency. At his Staten Island town hall Wednesday, he dramatically started the meeting with an announcement that he was reversing course and would support an inquiry.
But aside from one immediate outburst in opposition — which was shouted down by the crowd — the issue didn’t come up again, though the official topic for the evening was transportation and constituents had to write questions ahead of time.
In interviews with voters at the events, self-identified Democrats said they were pleased, albeit some only cautiously, that the House decided to formally launch the inquiry. And in many cases, voters were more concerned about other issues, such as healthcare, climate policy and local transit service.
Public attitudes on impeachment will be particularly important to both Democrats and Republicans in districts like Delgado’s, one of the 31 House districts where voters backed Trump for president in 2016 and swung to support Democrats for Congress two years later.
Moderate Democratic lawmakers in these places will have to find a way to keep the support of progressive Democrats — many of whom have long wanted an impeachment inquiry — and not lose the votes of moderates and independents, who either support Trump or are skeptical that impeachment is warranted.
Even moderate Democrats may see more risk now in opposing the impeachment inquiry than supporting it. Only about nine of the 235 House Democrats oppose the move.
Staten Island residents Beverly Walters and Christina Cambria showed up at Rose’s town hall meeting to encourage the lawmaker to join the rest of his party and support the inquiry. They were pleased when he did. Cambria, a Democrat who voted for Rose, said she may have thought less of him had he not backed the inquiry.
“I would question it because I can’t imagine how anybody can go along with this,” she said.
Rose said the administration’s refusal to comply with document requests since the inquiry started convinced him to support it. “We have got to follow these facts where they lead us. And where we find ourselves today the president has no one to blame but himself,” Rose said to applause in the Jewish community center.
Rose gave a passionate defense of the inquiry, citing friends from his own military service who are still enlisted and serving in the Middle East as the reason he cannot let “corruption stand.”
Several Democratic voters in these swing districts said they didn’t begin to support impeachment until the president’s interactions with the Ukrainian president became public.
Trump has acknowledged asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden — a possible Trump opponent in 2020 — as he withheld nearly $400 million in military aid that the nation needed to fight Russia-backed separatists.
Until last week, “I didn’t think it was politically wise to do,” said Barbara Dolhansky, a Democrat from Pocono Lake, Pa., who showed up at a town hall hosted by Rep. Matt Cartwright. Now she’s on board — and so is Cartwright.
Cartwright, like other moderates, has gingerly danced around impeachment for months, rebuffing attempts from more progressive Democrats to start an inquiry while Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III was investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. Many of the centrists only began supporting the inquiry last week, on the same day Pelosi said she backed it.
Polls show that public support for impeachment has risen in recent days. Forty-five percent of Americans support the House’s effort and 38% oppose, according to a USA Today/Ipsos poll released Thursday. That’s up from 32% support and 61% opposition in a June USA Today poll. Other polls have found similar shifts in sentiment.
Democratic lawmakers, especially those in swing districts, often say the politics of impeachment don’t matter — that they’re ready to lose their job in order to stand up for the Constitution. But the politics are hard to ignore.
Even if the House impeaches the president, as of now there is no sign that the GOP-controlled Senate would remove him from office. The result could be that Trump remains in office, has a political foil to run against in 2020 and dozens of House Democrats have to run for reelection in Trump-leaning districts with an impeachment vote on their resume.
Rose and Cartwright have perhaps the slimmest tightrope to walk among all House Democrats. Trump won in their districts by nearly 10 percentage points in 2016 — the biggest margins of any Democrat who supports impeachment. In Delgado’s district, the president won by 7 percentage points. All six of the Democrats who represent districts in which the president won by more than 10 percentage points are against the inquiry.
Republicans are already eyeing each of their seats as key opportunities. Even before the inquiry, the Republican National Committee released ads tying Rose to his more liberal colleagues. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House Republicans, is running digital ads on Cartwright’s support for the impeachment inquiry, picturing him alongside Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and early impeachment supporters Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).
“Matt Cartwright is right there with them,” the ad says, “because he doesn’t like the president.”
Rose, Cartwright and Delgado have each outlined that they are supporting an inquiry – not necessarily the act of impeachment – and have matched the somber tone set by Pelosi in Washington. There is no joy in impeachment, they say, but the Constitution is at stake and the president has overstepped the line.
“We should want no foreign actor of any sort [to have] access to our democracy traded via a political favor,” Delgado said. “Because of that, I decided to move forward and join my colleagues in an impeachment inquiry.”
Cartwright deflected a stern question from a Trump supporter by stressing that he meets with Pelosi once a week as a member of leadership and he has been the “loudest voice” pushing her to show restraint.
Democrats know they will need to continue making the case to voters.
“It only takes about five seconds to explain what happened. We’re on better ground when we’re trying to persuade people of the seriousness of that,” said Cartwright, who helps shape messaging for House Democrats. “If it comes to it, absent exculpatory evidence and absent a good excuse, we’re going to vote for articles of impeachment and we’re going to need to explain that to the American public and bring them along.”