Democratic Split on Impeachment Talk: Officials Avoid It, but Voters Are Eager for It

Janis Silverman, a retired schoolteacher in North Carolina, was eager to talk about the possibility of impeaching President Trump, despite politicians’ reluctance.

MATTHEWS, N.C. — Democrats in Washington are wary of any talk about impeaching President Trump, but in this swing district in North Carolina, Janis Silverman is feeling no such constraints. A 72-year-old retired teacher, Ms. Silverman wrote to her congressman Tuesday to demand the House start impeachment proceedings.

“President Trump shows no respect for our laws or the Justice Department,” she wrote to Representative Robert Pittenger, a Republican, the day that Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, accused him of illegally arranging to pay hush money to influence the 2016 election.

“For me it was liberating,” Ms. Silverman said of Mr. Cohen’s characterization of Mr. Trump’s involvement. “My view is that he’s directly linked with criminal behavior.”

Yet Dan McCready, a politically centrist Iraq War veteran who is the Democratic nominee for the House seat here, has shown little appetite to talk about impeachment. On his campaign website and Twitter account and in public remarks, he focuses on supporting businesses, teachers and Social Security.

A chasm has opened in recent days between Democratic voters, who want to see Mr. Trump impeached or held to some political accounting, and Democratic candidates and strategists nationally, who view the “I word” as a red cape that will inflame the Republican base and possibly hurt their chances of taking control of the House. Talk of impeachment sprang readily and without apology to the lips of Democratic voters in interviews this week.

Finessing the question of impeachment is especially delicate in battlegrounds like North Carolina’s Ninth Congressional District, which favored Mr. Trump over Hillary Clinton by 12 percentage points in 2016. The seat has been Republican for decades, but Democrats think Mr. McCready can win it in November by focusing on his centrist message and his military bona fides (his new campaign ad opens with him in fatigues and a flak jacket).

Talking about impeachment would hardly win support from most Republican voters, who rallied to Mr. Trump’s defense after the news on Tuesday of the guilty plea by Mr. Cohen and the conviction of Mr. Trump’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, on tax and bank fraud charges.

“First, when I heard the news of the guilty plea, I thought it was over for Trump — it’s done,’’ said Mae Rostock, a retiree who supports the president. But then she heard the emeritus Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz say on Fox News that Mr. Trump had little to fear legally, and she was greatly relieved.

Representative Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader, and other top Democrats advised the party’s candidates this week, in a memo and a conference call, to speak not of impeachment, but of a “culture of corruption” under Mr. Trump, for which a Democratic House would be a check.

The president weighed in that his removal from office would cause the booming stock market to crash and make Americans “very poor.” Whether he was consciously trying to motivate his supporters in the midterms was unclear. “I don’t know how you can impeach somebody who’s done a great job,’’ he added.

The campaign of Mark Harris, the Republican House candidate in the Ninth District, suggested it is eager to bring up the subject, as a prod to the Republican base. For now, though, the threat of impeachment seems not to have broken through to many voters yet. The race here is competitive largely because many of the president’s voters are complacent, while Democratic supporters are angry and eager to turn out.

Sheila Moysakis, 54, a beauty salon owner in Unionville, who called herself a strong Trump supporter, said Mr. Trump’s payments to a porn star and a Playboy model ahead of the 2016 election did not concern her. “That kind of stuff doesn’t normally blow my skirt up,” she said.

It was wrong to pay hush money, she said, but added, “I can understand why people would have done it.” She was unfamiliar with the two candidates in the House race and said she wouldn’t vote unless she finds time in a busy schedule to study them and make an informed choice.

Asked if the threat of impeaching Mr. Trump might motivate her to vote for the Republican, she paused and considered. “That does motivate me, yes,” she said. “If you put it that way.”

In the May primary, Mr. McCready won more votes than all the Republican candidates combined. He has said he would not support Ms. Pelosi for House Speaker. His campaign declined requests to make him available for this article.

His opponent, Mr. Harris, 52, is a former Baptist minister who pulled off the rare defeat of an incumbent, Mr. Pittenger, in the primary. Mr. Harris favors rolling back the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage, and this summer a video of one of his sermons surfaced in which he said a woman’s biblical “core calling” was to be a homemaker, not to pursue a career.

That the race is close reflects the changing demographics of the region, from a notch on the Bible Belt to one where banking and other industries have attracted northern transplants, and the moderate cost of living draws retirees. The district runs from Charlotte east along the state border with South Carolina to Fayetteville. There are affluent suburbs like Matthews that trend Democratic, and farm communities with imposing brick churches that vote Republican.

Mr. McCready has far outraised Mr. Harris. In addition, the California billionaire Tom Steyer, who has led a national pro-impeachment effort all year, has pledged $500,000 to aid the Democrat.

“If Dan McCready wins, he will fight to have Donald Trump impeached and bring about two years of political gridlock,” said Jason Williams, Mr. Harris’s campaign manager.

Jan Brown is exactly the kind of independent voter that Democratic leaders fear could be lost by talk of impeachment. Mr. Brown, a retired small-business man and Army veteran, who calls himself “basically a conservative,” sat out the 2016 presidential election because both candidates turned him off. Nor has Mr. Trump grown on him since. “He degrades the office of the president of the United States,” said Mr. Brown, 80, outside Post 2423 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Indian Trail, before bingo night on Thursday.

He may dislike the president, but he also hates the idea of impeachment. “I think that hurts the country, economically as well as psychologically,” he said. He has not made up his mind in the House race, awaiting further information and research into the candidates.

But others are much more convinced. On Matthews’s main street, Dr. Margie Divish, a physician, stepped aside from the busy entrance of Renfrow’s Hardware to express her thoughts in a near whisper out of earshot of other shoppers. “I am very happy this happened,” she said of the Cohen and Manafort developments, because of the possibility they move Mr. Trump closer to impeachment.

But at the same time she feared that if Democrats take the House and move to remove the president, it will further inflame a divided country. “Oh, I’d love to have him impeached,” she said, “but I’m really just afraid of some of his supporters. We’ve already seen how well Trump can fan the flames of resentment among people who feel they’ve been left behind.”

Many voters of both parties said the political climate was so polarized they had stopped watching the news and hesitated to express themselves on social media and in family gatherings for fear of angry responses. A retired nurse who said she had “grown up a Republican all my life’’ added that she strongly disliked Mr. Trump and hoped for his impeachment. She would only give her first name, Linda, for fear of being attacked over her views.

Sinead Dignon, 29, a stay-at-home mother, said: “I hate Trump. I think he’s corrupt. I think he’s a narcissist. Should I keep going?”

But she was no fan of progressive Democratic priorities like government-paid universal health care, either. “Both parties have just gone down the tubes,’’ she said. She turned to her 14-month-old daughter and offered, “Do you want to be president?”

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