For Democratic congressional challengers in New York, growing public support for impeachment – stoked by President Donald Trump’s effort to pressure the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate a political rival – has opened up a new line of attack against GOP incumbents. Democratic nominees from the 2018 cycle Dana Balter, Tracy Mitrano and Perry Gershon declared their support for impeachment last weekshortly after the public release of a summary of Trump’s conversation with the Ukranian president. All three are running in 2020 against their previous opponents, incumbent Reps. John Katko of Central New York, Tom Reed of the Southern Tier and Lee Zeldin of eastern Long Island.
The Democratic candidates used the embarrassing revelations about the Republican president to launch new attacks against the Republican incumbents who beat them last year. “Congressman Katko’s priority has been to give Trump cover,” Balter said in a Sept. 25 statement after Katko said an impeachment inquiry is “a dramatic overstep” by Democrats. Balter lost to Katko by 5.17 percentage points last year in a district that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Barack Obama in the previous two presidential elections. Mitrano used her support of the inquiry to highlight her bipartisanship, an implicit contrast to Reed, a co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in the House of Representatives, who said the summary of the phone call between Trump and Zelensky revealed nothing impeachable. “Partisan politics used to stop at the water’s edge,” Mitrano said in a Sept. 26 statement, hitting Trump for leveraging American foreign policy for personal political gain.
Gershon said in an interview that he expects impeachment will remain on voters’ minds through Nov. 2020. “It's not just a matter of what the president did, but it's how Zeldin behaved,” Gershon told City & State, referring to Zeldin, who beat Gershon by 5 percentage points in 2018. “Is he acting to investigate? Or is he trying to be constructive? Or is he simply playing a pure partisan?”
Balter, Mitrano and Gershon all said they have also incorporated impeachment into their fundraising pitches to donors.
Throughout the 2018 election cycle, conventional wisdom held that Democratic congressional candidates should avoid talking about impeaching Trump if they wanted to have any hope of unseating Republican incumbents in swing districts. This approach worked out well for now-Democratic Reps. Anthony Brindisi of Central New York, Antonio Delgado in the Catskills and Upper Hudson Valley and Max Rose on Staten Island – all of whom cast themselves as pragmatic, mainstream alternatives to their GOP incumbents last year.
Not anymore. Interviews with leading Democratic congressional contenders, grassroots activists and experts show that holding Trump accountable for his apparent collusion with foreign powers and attempts to cover up those actions will remain a point of attack against their opponents. All of New York’s congressional Republicans have publicly defended Trump’s conduct and none have come out for an impeachment inquiry. Brindisi is still on the fence about impeachment, but Delgado no longer has qualms about expressing his support of impeachment, given the latest developments. On Wednesday night, at a town hall on transportation issues on Staten Island, Rose announced his support for an impeachment inquiry.
Both Republican incumbents and their Democratic challengers have adopted stances that appeal to their party bases. Figuring out how these positions will play with independents, however, is much trickier given the rapid changes in public support for impeachment – but Republican incumbents and their Democratic challengers are moving fast to play the issue to their advantage. “It's a loose ball on the ground that keeps getting muffed and nobody recovers the fumble,” said Bruce Gyory, an adjunct professor of political science at the University of Albany. “Who's going to wind up with possession of the ball?”
There has been no public polling of voters’ sentiments on impeachment in New York specifically. But recent national polling shows popular support for an impeachment inquiry is at its highest level since Trump took office. An Oct. 2 Politico/Morning Consult poll found 46% of voters in favor of impeachment proceedings and 43% against. Even more worrisome for Republicans is a Sept. 30 CNN poll that found 46% of independents and 14% of Republicans support removing Trump from office. These numbers could go up or down in the upcoming weeks – but they already signify a big break from past months when support for impeachment hovered around one-third of the electorate.
Trump has enjoyed high approval ratings within his own party throughout his term and any erosion in that support would signal danger for him and incumbent Republicans who have stood with him, such as Katko, Reed and Zeldin. “If the number of Republicans willing to impeach crosses 25%, that's a problem,” said Gyory. “If that number among independents goes above 50% that's a problem for Republicans.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that impeachment is weakening the GOP’s claim to the political center. Nearly one year after the Auburn Citizen endorsed Katko for reelection, while acknowledging Balter’s qualifications for office, by citing how his political moderation could be a check on Trump’s worst political impulses, the newspaper blasted the congressman’s recent defense of Trump. “The problem with the timid approach of Katko and other moderate Republicans is that it only encourages more abuse of power by the president,” the newspaper wrote in a Sept. 29 editorial.
Democrats’ chances of beating Katko, Zeldin or Reed could dramatically increase if Democrats are able to capitalize on Republicans and independents growing support of impeachment, considering the relatively thin winning margins those Republicans had last year. Registered Democrats outnumber their Republican counterparts in Katko’s district, as well as the Long Island district held by GOP Rep. Peter King, who beat Democratic challenger Liuba Gretchen Shirley by six points last November. Gretchen Shirley, who did not respond to a request for comment, has not announced yet whether she will challenge King, nor has she stated her position on impeachment. But given her progressive stances on other issues and King’s defense of Trump over the Ukraine affair, it is likely that she would draw a sharp contrast with King on the subject.
Local Democratic leaders and grassroots activists say that they are focused on local races scheduled for this November, but that will likely change as the 2020 race and impeachment inquiry heat up. “We're going to be doing some events focused on impeachment,” said Thomas Keck, an organizer with Indivisible NY24 who is also a professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. “The grassroots on the left were already angry at Katko and this is for sure amping that up.”
Democrats in non-urban New York tend to be more moderate than their counterparts in inner-cities. However, Democrats outside their party’s electoral strongholds are likely following national trends that have undermined the appeal of local issues in the age of Trump. “(It’s) fairly nationalized elections across the board,” said Jacob Neiheisel, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo. “The opinion of most Democrats being on board with impeachment is probably going to hold up.”
One way to see how impeachment is increasingly on the minds of voters are the town halls that Brindisi has held inside and outside his district. At a Sept. 14 town hall in Tompkins County in the Southern Tier – which is in Reed’s district – the topic of impeachment did not even come up, according to Tompkins Democratic County Chair Jim Gustafson. That is changing following the revelations about Trump’s conduct on a phone call with the Ukranian president. An upcoming town hall in New Hartford – which is in Brindisi’s district – will feature competing contingents of activists who support and oppose impeachment. “There hasn't been a whole lot of Russia or Trump talk at these town halls,” said Luke Perry, a professor at Utica College who recently published a book about the 2018 congressional races in Central New York. “I think this one's going to be different.”
While the 2020 election is still more than a year away, it is already shaping up to be even more partisan than the 2018 cycle, where candidates like Katko could still win by appealing to bipartisanship. That will become harder to do now that impeachment has become an issue that has become increasingly hard to avoid for incumbents and challengers alike.
With so much up in the air about impeachment and its political impact on the 2020 elections, political calculations could depend as much on art as political science, according to Gyory. “They have to go by instinct,” he said. “Their best bet is probably to vote the merits, because it's almost impossible today to calculate the analytics.”
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that Hillary Clinton won the 24th Congressional District in 2016 and to include official state Board of Elections results in the 2018 race between Rep. John Katko and Democratic challenger Dana Balter. Thomas Keck's position at Syracuse University has been clarified.