October 2, 2019 / 10:07 AM / 21 days ago

Back home, at-risk Democrats face voters' partisan divide on impeachment

COMMERCE TOWNSHIP, Michigan (Reuters) - Speaking before a rowdy and divided crowd of about 200 at an indoor shooting range Tuesday evening, first-term House Democratic congresswoman Haley Stevens from Michigan faced angry Republican voters who lashed out at her party’s push for gun control - as well as its treatment of President Donald Trump.

U.S. Congresswoman Haley Stevens listens during a "End The Gun Violence" Town Hall in Commerce Township, Michigan, U.S. October 1, 2019. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Stevens did not hold the town hall in her home district to discuss House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry of Trump, but to discuss tighter gun laws, perhaps the one issue that is just as divisive in American politics.

But impeachment came up anyway.

Wearing Trump hats and camouflage and carrying holstered handguns, many of his supporters said Democrats have gone too far by opening the impeachment probe over a whistleblower complaint that Trump solicited Ukraine’s help in smearing Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

“They’ve already put him (Trump) through the wringer. They’re just clutching at straws,” said Marti Carroll, 61, a bookkeeper and photographer who lives in Commerce Township, a northern suburb of Detroit, as gunshots rang out from the nearby range.

As congressional Democrats from swing districts were meeting with constituents back home to emphasize a range of legislative priorities including gun control and healthcare, several were also forced to defend their decision to pursue the impeachment probe.

Stevens, 36, won the 2018 election in a district that Trump carried two years earlier to replace a retiring Republican, one of the 41 net gains that helped Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2011.

She was one of the last House Democrats who came out in support of impeachment last week, tipping House Speaker Nancy Pelosi toward a move she had been reluctant to make for months. That has also made Stevens a top Republican target.

The Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee that favors Republicans, has taken aim at several first-term House Democrats, including Stevens, in online ads that accuse them of siding with the party’s left wing as represented by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.

Talking to Reuters after the town hall, Stevens said she found the prospect of impeachment “alarming” and “heartbreaking.”

But, she said, “we cannot be divided on the rule of law.”

Trump won Michigan in 2016 by just 10,704 votes, and his campaign believes he must carry the industrial Midwestern state again next year in the presidential election to secure a second term.

Gabriel Costanzo, a Republican member of the city council in nearby Walled Lake, said he likes the congresswoman personally, but that she went too far in supporting the inquiry.

“She’s not governing from the middle,” Costanzo said. “Impeachment pushed a lot of people over the edge with her.”

Despite the risks and the possibility that any House action would fail in the Republican-controlled Senate, some Democrats at the event said they could not ignore the president’s actions.

“I don’t think they can help but pursue it - I don’t think it’s an option,” said Rick Goldberg, 66, a Democrat and retired assistant deputy warden at a correctional facility, who lives in Livonia, Michigan. “But the Senate’s not going to do anything with it.”

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday showed that the number of Americans who believe Trump should be impeached rose 8 percentage points to 45% over the past week as more people learned about the Ukraine allegations.

The increase was mostly attributable to Democrats, 74% of whom said Trump should be impeached. Underscoring the partisan nature of the issue, only 13% of Republicans said they supported impeachment.

The overwhelming majority of House Democrats support the impeachment inquiry. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

‘JUMPING THE GUN’

Regardless of the data, some Democrats worry their party may have entered perilous territory.

In last year’s midterm elections, they retook the House largely by appealing to suburban moderate voters on issues such as healthcare and not focusing on Trump’s conduct.

Democrats hold a 38-seat edge over Republicans in the chamber. Next year, every House member will face re-election.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which works to elect more Republicans to the House, on Tuesday took aim at Democrats, including first-term Representative Elaine Luria of Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, tweeting, “Hoo-boy, that didn’t take long! “@RepElaineLuria is facing serious heat at home for supporting the baseless impeachment of President @RealDonaldTrump. #VA02”

At a Monday town hall in Oklahoma City, Kendra Horn, another first-year Democratic congresswoman, explained her choice to not support the probe.

Trump won her district by about 13 percentage points.

“Very clearly, I think these are serious allegations that should be investigated. I did not think it was necessary to move into an impeachment inquiry to do so, but now the horse is out of the barn,” Horn told reporters.

Katie Hill, a Democratic freshman from California who flipped a Republican-held seat in the 2018 midterms, held a telephone town hall with her constituents on Tuesday evening.

She opened her remarks by explaining why she backed impeachment, telling the audience that her mom is a Democrat and her dad is a Republican.

“It is the toughest decision that I have had to make since taking this office, and it is one that I only made when it became very clear that our security and our democracy were jeopardized,” Hill said.

Her staff also asked callers to answer a poll question on the call: “Do you support the investigation of President Trump’s conversation with the leader of Ukraine with regard to a political opponent?” Callers were asked to press 1 for yes, and 2 for no.

One caller said she opposed impeachment, because it “will divide the country.” She asked Hill: “Why are you jumping the gun?”

“This is not a coup,” Hill replied. “I would like to make it perfectly clear, if a Democratic president was in the White House, I would act in exactly the same way. I want to assure you there is no jumping to conclusions.”

Lauren Underwood, a first-year congresswoman who represents a suburb outside Chicago, was unequivocal after holding a town hall on Tuesday night with about 60 people, including two dozen teenagers, on vaping.

Slideshow (5 Images)

“The idea of our president could have committed a betrayal of his office in this way ... it is outrageous, it is so bad and it is disgusting,” Underwood said after the event at the Naperville Public Library.

Her supporters said the same as they left.

“I think they should have done it a long time ago,” Joe Holt, a 71-year-old retiree from Naperville, Illinois, said after the forum. “This latest thing ... I am just shocked how this is coming out.”

Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Commerce Township, Tim Reid in Los Angeles, Ben Fenwick in Oklahoma City and Brendan O'Brien in Illinois; writing by Jim Oliphant; editing by Soyoung Kim, Gerry Doyle and Jonathan Oatis

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