The 221-212 party-line vote Wednesday in the narrowly divided chamber to further the impeachment process underscored how little wiggle room Republicans have to allow their more vulnerable members, particularly in coastal blue states like New York and California, to duck the politically charged issue.
Democrats are eager to highlight Republicans trying to have it both ways. Party leaders are gearing up to make sure an impeachment push proves to be a potent issue for their candidates next year, in addition to abortion rights, as they try to offset Biden’s weakness at the top of the ticket.
“They’re gift wrapping an issue for Democrats to prosecute against them in 2024. Most of these guys were off-year wins and have never had to defend these seats in a presidential election year,” Neal Kwatra, a New York Democratic consultant, said. “With Democrats focused on pickups in New York, this gives them fresh meat and motivation.”
Democratic House candidates, too, expect impeachment could provide fodder for ads to hit their Republican opponents in swing seats and create a clear opening to tie their opponents to former President Donald Trump in those battleground districts.
“This is another example of the extreme side of the MAGA movement that has held our government hostage,” Democrat John Mannion, who is running to unseat Rep. Brandon Williams in a Syracuse-area House seat, said in an interview.
Democrats expect the issue will remain a potent one for voters — allowing their candidates to talk about substantive matters, while portraying Republicans as obsessed with attacking Biden.
And in New York and California, which have a plethora of competitive House races, early signs show Republican discomfort over the issue.
New York GOP Rep. Mike Lawler said in a statement to POLITICO there is not yet sufficient evidence to impeach Biden and set a removal trial in the Senate, despite voting to advance the process. Lawler prevailed last year in a suburban New York City district that Biden won by 10 percentage points in 2020.
“To my constituents, I promise to approach this inquiry with the seriousness it demands, keeping in mind the core American value that someone is always innocent until proven guilty — and you will always have my word that I’ll put what’s right for our country before what’s right for my party,” Lawler said in a statement.
But Wednesday’s vote put all House Republicans on the record in backing the initial phase of establishing the impeachment inquiry.
Republicans are reviewing the international business dealings of Biden’s son Hunter, but have insisted they are primarily interested in whether the president financially benefited.
While the issue has been an animating one for Republican voters, swing district GOP lawmakers are framing the vote for the inquiry as a way to shore up their bipartisan bonafides.
Rep. David Valadao, a California Republican in a district Biden won by 11 points in 2020, emphasized in an interview that he was simply voting to advance the probe, not to impeach the president.
Asked if voters in his swing district will make that distinction, he said, “We’ll find out.”
“I’ve voted on the Trump one. I voted on the expulsion of Santos. I’ve taken a pretty bipartisan approach on this one,” Valadao said. “When they’re wrong, they’re wrong — call it.”
Republican Rep. Marc Molinaro, who represents a Hudson Valley district in New York to the north of Lawler, also comforted himself with the shaky view voters have of Biden.
“Now, with serious questions about President Biden, Congress has a responsibility to check it out. It is our job to do so,” he said in a statement to POLITICO. “Because if he handles his personal affairs anything like he does inflation, crime, or the border — there’s reason for us to be suspicious.”
Other Republicans are making a plea for restraint.
Rep. Anthony D’Esposito, a Long Island Republican, urged his GOP colleagues “to advance this inquiry in a level-headed fashion and let only the facts guide us.”
D’Esposito, Lawler and Molinaro are among the five House Republican freshmen from New York with credible Democratic challenges next year. Given the razor-thin majority the House GOP holds, their seats are expected to be key in determining which party controls the chamber after 2024.
Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, who represents a battleground district near Los Angeles, has been outspoken in his support for the impeachment inquiry — and is framing the move as due diligence.
“The White House has made it clear that they’re not going to cooperate in any kind of inquiry until it’s formalized,” Garcia said. “So let’s formalize it. We get the information, we have an obligation to not turn a blind eye to this stuff.”
For some California Republicans, that vote “is akin to walking the plank,” said Mike Madrid, a GOP strategist and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. He argued that the many voters won’t know or care about the distinction between a procedural and impeachment vote.
Still, some Republicans fear the price of inaction for the party on pursuing impeachment against Biden, whose popularity with voters continues to sag.
Former Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) pointed to broad support within the Republican base for a Biden impeachment.
Not acting against Biden could hamper Republican turnout, Sweeney said. But at the same time, top GOP lawmakers need to explain to more moderate voters why the inquiry is necessary.
“It could be risky.It could also be risky to do nothing” he said. “It depends on how thorough and how effective the Republican majority is at communicating the evidence they’ve got.”