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Democrats Face High Level Of Political Risk Over Impeachment


Congress returns this week from a two-week break. During that time, freshmen Democrats newly elected in 2018, Democrats who helped tip the House in favor of an impeachment inquiry have been at home meeting with constituents. NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis reports on the political risks they're taking.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Michigan Democrat Elissa Slotkin is one of the 31 freshmen lawmakers who represent a district Donald Trump won. So when she tried to push back at a recent town hall on a constituent who said the president has done nothing wrong, it didn't go over great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Foreign leaders help each other all the time.

ELISSA SLOTKIN: They just - I'm sorry, ma'am. They don't.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They helped Biden.


DAVIS: And it went on and on like this.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: She's our representative, and we want answers.

DAVIS: Slotkin says she hopes the totality of her record and her background as a CIA analyst will keep her district behind her in the next election.

SLOTKIN: Hopefully, they have gotten to know me enough as a representative to trust that I didn't do this because it was some political thing for me.

DAVIS: In recent weeks, national polls show a growing number of Americans support the impeachment inquiry. That includes independents who sided with these Democrats in the last election. But in the microcosms of the most competitive House races, the decision to support the inquiry still brings a high level of political risk.

NEIL NEWHOUSE: The political environment in those districts, in those swing districts that Democrats hold on to but that could swing the House, is really not leaning toward Democrats right now at all but leaning away from them and leaning to Republicans.

DAVIS: That's Neil Newhouse, a veteran Republican pollster. He recently conducted polling focused on just 95 congressional districts for the House Republican campaign operation. His data shows in those districts just 37% of voters believe the president's actions warrant impeachment. And voters generally favor an anti-impeachment Republican over a pro-impeachment Democrat.

NEWHOUSE: The more these guys go on the record, the more it's going to hurt them in the '20 election.

DAVIS: But instead of shying away from this political risk, most freshmen Democrats are embracing it. Iowa Democratic Congresswoman Cindy Axne had this exchange with a reporter after one of her town halls in Creston.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And you're willing to keep going down that path even if it gets to a point where it may cost you your seat.

CINDY AXNE: Yes. If it's the right thing to do, I will always do the right thing.

DAVIS: Another Democratic freshman, Max Rose of New York, had this message for his Staten Island district that Trump won by 10 points.


MAX ROSE: So while the president of the United States may be willing to violate the Constitution to get reelected, I will not.

DAVIS: Not all freshmen have been as brazen in their support. Utah Democrat Ben McAdams was one of the last holdouts on the impeachment inquiry. He announced over the recess that he now supports it. But he was quick to caution that doesn't guarantee he will support articles of impeachment if they come to the floor.


BEN MCADAMS: For myself, I pledge to remain objective and will reserve final judgment until that process concludes.

DAVIS: Freshman Democrats like Pennsylvania's Susan Wild say you can't help but think of the consequences of embracing impeachment when you represent a swing seat.

SUSAN WILD: I do consider the fact that I'm in a very purple district. I know that there are constituents who are not fans of an impeachment inquiry.

DAVIS: Like most Democrats, she hopes her reelection prospects won't come down simply to where they stood on the question of impeachment for President Trump.

WILD: I hope that they will be convinced by the work that I do in the district and on behalf of the district, that they'll be convinced of my worthiness as their representative and that it won't hinge just on this decision.

DAVIS: If Democrats want to hold on to their majority, it might have to. Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "THE MONSOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.