White House

Impeachment Would Probably Cost Democrats the House

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi addresses guests in Washington, D.C., March 8, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
To succeed, it would require at least 13 votes from Democrats representing districts Trump carried in 2016.

The New York Times reports that House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler has “gradually become convinced that his panel should proceed with impeachment hearings and do so as expeditiously as possible, though he has not stated so publicly,” citing “lawmakers and aides familiar with his thinking.”

Nadler should not be surprised that he’s encountering so much resistance to this idea from House speaker Nancy Pelosi. A great deal has been written about how impeaching Trump — in a move that would by entirely symbolic, insofar as the Republican-held Senate would never convict and remove him from office — could improve his odds of reelection. Less-discussed is the very good chance that it would cost Democrats control of the House.

Thirty-one Democrats from districts Trump carried in 2016 currently sit in the House. Moving forward with impeachment would force an incredibly difficult vote on all of those Democrats, including the 13 from districts Trump won by more than six percentage points. Democrats currently have 235 House seats. Republicans currently have 197 seats, with two vacancies in GOP-leaning districts in North Carolina. If the GOP keeps those two seats, it would need to flip 19 seats in 2020 to retake control of the lower chamber.

Pro-impeachment Democrats were thrilled that 95 House members voted for the recent impeachment resolution offered by Representative Al Green of Texas. But that vote revealed that purple-district Democrats have no appetite for impeachment. While it’s possible that the revelations in the Mueller report or the president’s other flaws have reduced Trump’s level of support in the 31 Democrat-held House districts he won, not a single one of the 31 Democrats in question voted for Green’s resolution, and not a single one has publicly supported impeachment so far. That suggests Trump is probably still pretty popular in their districts — or at least that they remain wary of rocking the boat.

If all 31 Democrats in Trump districts voted no and every other Democrat voted yes, impeachment would fail with just 205 votes, 13 short of the 218 needed. (For the sake of this math, assume that there are no vacancies or members voting “present” on such a consequential matter, and that every Republican votes no, as all indications are they would.) Democratic leaders could allow 18 members to vote “no” and pass impeachment by a single vote, but that would leave 13 of their colleagues voting to impeach Trump from districts he carried in 2016. Winning those seats would put Republicans at 212, just six short of what they need to flip the House. (Representative Justin Amash, who recently left the GOP and supports impeachment, intends to run for reelection as an independent. This math assumes that Amash is not defeated by a GOP challenger in 2020. His district scores R+6 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index, and Trump carried it by ten points in 2016.)

There’s another complication to this scenario: how the Democratic grassroots back home would react to the 18 Democrats who vote against impeachment. They might accept that their representatives’ votes reflected the will of their districts, or they might see the votes as an unacceptable betrayal and organize primary challenges or Election Day boycotts. House Democrats might insist that only a small portion of the base would be mad enough to punish a House member who opposed impeachment in 2020. But a lot of these purple-district Democrats won in 2018 by the skin of their teeth.

Ben McAdams won his 2018 race in Utah by 694 votes. Lucy McBath won by 3,264 votes in Georgia. Kendra Horn won perhaps the biggest upset of the cycle in Oklahoma by 3,338 votes. Xochitl Torres Small won by 3,722 votes in New Mexico, Andrew Kim by 3,973 votes in New Jersey, and Joe Cunningham by 3,982 in South Carolina. The last thing these vulnerable incumbents need is an impeachment vote that gives them the option of angering either their party’s base or the electorate as a whole.

A successful impeachment vote would probably end the careers of at least 13 House Democrats and create serious turnout headaches for at least 18 more. Maybe in Nadler’s mind, it would be worth it to America, no matter the political consequences. But Pelosi’s concerns — and those of the 137 Democrats who voted against Green’s resolution — are not difficult to understand.

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