On Trump impeachment, divisions between urban and rural Democrats

MT. AYR, Ia./WHARTON, N.J. (Reuters) - First-term U.S. congresswoman Cynthia Axne, back home in her rural Iowa district for the Thanksgiving break, faced a room full of farmers on Saturday who made clear their opposition to the impeachment investigation of Republican President Donald Trump.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump participates in a listening session on youth vaping and the electronic cigarette epidemic inside the Cabinet Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 22, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner

Axne, 54, avoided any mention of impeachment until one of her constituents, a Democrat who voted for her, said he views the investigation as a waste of time and money: “Let’s not vote for impeachment. Let’s get stuff done. I’m sick of it!” he bellowed. Others nodded in agreement.

Meanwhile, 1,000 miles (1,610 km) away in the old industrial town of Wharton, New Jersey, freshman U.S. congressman Tom Malinowski was treated like a rock star when he told a crowd of about 150 he believed the evidence to impeach Trump was overwhelming.

With each mention of impeachment and denunciation of Trump, Malinowski was greeted with loud applause from voters packed into a tiny library basement, where the room hummed with talk of ousting the president.

These two freshman lawmakers flipped districts from Republican control in the 2018 midterm congressional elections, two of the 41 net gains that helped Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2011.

Yet on impeachment, as they face close fights for their seats again next November, their approach is starkly different. Axne avoids any mention of it; Malinowski leans into the topic.

Polls show public sentiment about impeachment breaking along partisan lines, but the reaction of Democratic voters in these two swing districts suggests there is also a rural and suburban divide on the issue among Democrats.

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“I don’t talk about impeachment,” Axne, who defeated Republican David Young in 2016 by just two points, said in an interview.

“These are hard working, salt of the earth people who just want to make a living and provide for their families. They’re tired of what they consider the bureaucracy and the politics of Washington and that’s true to what Iowans are. Impeachment is not a priority in their lives.”

Axne supports the impeachment inquiry, and says if there is proof Trump abused his office and harmed America’s national security in his dealings with Ukraine, she will vote to impeach him - even it means losing her seat.

“My job is to work for the people here in this district and do a good job for them. But my job also is to protect this country. If we find out that the president has put us in harm’s way, then I have absolutely no problem losing a seat over that.”

To loud applause in his New Jersey district, about 50 miles west of New York, Malinowski said: “The president is free to pursue a foreign policy that he believes is in the national interest, but he is not free to pursue a foreign policy that only serves his political interest.”

Malinowski, 53, a Polish-born former employee of the State Department, was the first New Jersey House member to call for Trump’s impeachment.

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In a town hall in the neighboring district on Monday, U.S. Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill saw a slightly divided crowd. Sherrill joined seven freshman Democrats in penning an op-ed in the Washington Post in September that is considered a tipping point in the Democratic efforts to impeach.

The first question came from a woman who criticized the impeachment proceedings as hollow and asked Sherrill if she still supports the push. The question drew sharp boos and shouts of “sit down” from some members of the audience.

Sherrill reminded the crowd of roughly 300 to treat people with respect before saying her position hadn’t changed.

“The president crossed the line for me when it seemed as if we had withheld critical military funding from a security partner because you want them to investigate a political opponent,” Sherrill said to applause.

In the New York City borough of Staten Island, fellow freshman Democratic Congressman Max Rose held a town hall to discuss a planned $615 million sea wall - only to have it derailed briefly by a woman yelling at him over impeachment.

“Stop the coup!” she yelled, before security guards ejected her from the high school auditorium.

Rose, who flipped the Republican district last year and was one of the last Democrats to announce support for the inquiry, bristled when asked afterward how his position could affect his chances of reelection.

“That exactly right there is what is wrong with politics,” he said, adding an expletive. “What I care about is getting projects like this done, improving people’s lives.”

Five days of public hearings in the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry concluded on Thursday. The probe is looking into Trump’s pressure campaign to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.

Asked how he was going to vote on impeachment, Malinowski said he had not made a final decision, but added: “I think you can tell from my presentation that I believe the evidence against the president is quite strong.”

He had plenty of company at the town hall. Frank Harder, a 71-year retired purchasing agent and registered Democrat, has supported impeaching Trump for months.

“I think the man is a traitor,” said Harder, who has been a registered Democrat since returning from a tour in Vietnam in 1971.

Reporting by Tim Reid and Jarret Renshaw; Additional reporting by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall