It was a mostly pro-impeachment crowd at U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips’ town hall meeting in suburban Brooklyn Park last month. A retired DFL legislator from Minnetonka drew applause from many of the 200 people when he urged Phillips and his fellow Democrats in Washington to “regain the authority” in the impeachment process underway against President Donald Trump.
But Phillips, a freshman who unseated a long-serving suburban Republican last year, was measured in his response. “I didn’t run for Congress to impeach a president,” he told the group. Phillips reminded his constituents he was slow to back the impeachment inquiry — “I resisted a lot of calls from the left to come out many months ago.”
The political verdict on the impeachment push by the House’s Democratic majority will depend in large part on the response of voters in suburban congressional districts increasingly at the fulcrum of national elections. Phillips, who won his suburban Hennepin and Carver County district on a message of political unity, must now reconcile his desire for bipartisanship with support for an impeachment inquiry that’s split Washington along party lines.
As the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday released its impeachment report, Republicans were scaling up their message that House Democrats are fixated on impeachment at the expense of progress on issues like jobs and schools that polls show are top concerns for suburban swing voters.
“I am talking to a lot of people who say they are independents and I don’t hear a lot of support for this,” said Kendall Qualls, a Republican running against Phillips next year. Though Democrat Hillary Clinton carried the Third District in 2016, Qualls has not been reluctant to speak against impeachment.
“Democratic leaders have been promoting his impeachment from the very beginning,” Qualls said. “It’s an affront to the people that voted for [Trump].”
Phillips and another freshman House Democrat, Rep. Angie Craig, both flipped suburban Republican districts last year — both riding a blue wave that carried Democrats into their House majority. Those DFL victories, combined with more recent gains in suburban races in other parts of the country this year, have Democrats plotting a 2020 strategy that relies heavily on suburban voters moving away from the Republican Party of Trump.
“Suburban voters are rejecting Trump,” the Democratic National Committee said in a statement Nov. 7, the day after Democratic victories in suburban parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Kentucky and other states mirrored the party’s gains in 2018.
The shape and contours of the next election will likely be influenced by a politically fraught impeachment drama playing out over the next few months — assuming the Democratic-led House votes mostly along party lines to send impeachment articles to the GOP-controlled Senate, where the chances of impeachment are remote. All along, GOP leaders have left little doubt that they see some advantage in making the process an election issue, notwithstanding a mounting stack of revelations about Trump and Ukraine.
“Efforts to undermine a duly elected president are not only detrimental to the fabric of our nation, they take away from Congress’ ability to support the growth and opportunity of every American,” U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., wrote last week in a newsletter from his office. Emmer chairs the House Republican campaign committee charged with overturning the Democratic majority, which means targeting freshman suburban Democrats like Phillips and Craig.
Trump easily carried Emmer’s district, which runs from the Twin Cities suburbs to St. Cloud. Though suburban to exurban in much of its complexion, the Sixth District is the kind of turf where Democrats are still struggling to gain a foothold. Emmer has remained a leading Trump defender in Congress.
“There is truth to the idea that there are parts of the American suburbs that are moving very much toward Democrats,” said David Hopkins, a political science professor at Boston College who researches suburban voting patterns. “But it’s a trend that’s been mostly concentrated in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, so it’s getting overgeneralized.”
Phillips’ district includes many of the biggest and most established Twin Cities suburbs: Bloomington, Brooklyn Park, Plymouth, Minnetonka, Eden Prairie. Emmer’s district has a larger rural component but includes a number of large suburbs and exurbs, including Anoka, Blaine, Andover, Elk River and Forest Lake, as well as the smaller population center of St. Cloud.
“The question for Democrats’ prospects in 2020 is not just about growing strength in the big suburban areas but also cutting off losses in smaller suburbs and even bigger losses in rural areas,” Hopkins said. “And a lot of the states [Trump] won in 2016, like Pennsylvania and Michigan and Iowa and Ohio, was because the shift to Democrats in the suburbs were not enough to offset a bigger shift to Trump in rural areas.”
The political composition of Craig’s Second District south of the Twin Cities — an area Trump carried narrowly — is somewhere between those of Phillips and Emmer. It covers suburbs such as Eagan and Burnsville, smaller cities like Red Wing and Northfield, and some rural stretches.
Last month, the American Action Network, a Republican fundraising and advocacy group affiliated with former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, launched a $7 million nationwide TV and digital advertising campaign urging Craig and three dozen House Democratic colleagues to “drop the partisan charade and vote no on impeachment.”
The Trump campaign is working in Minnesota and around the country to turn out base voters with a message that the impeachment process is a purely partisan attack on the president. Barb Sutter, a Minnesota Republican Party official who lives in Phillips’ district, called the hearings “political theater.”
“I sometimes just want to throw the radio through the window when I hear some of the testimony,” Sutter added.
Democrats, meanwhile, have sought to build the case that there are legitimate legal and Constitutional grounds for removing him from office. “I was calling about him being impeached with the Russia inquiry and the Mueller report, but the Ukraine situation strengthened it,” said Betsy Kiekhafer, a retired nurse from Coon Rapids who bought an “IMPEACH” button at the Phillips town hall.
A CNN poll released last week found half of Americans, 50%, support Trump’s impeachment and removal from office, while 43% are opposed. While Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on the issue, independents are closely split at 47% in support and 45% opposed.
Phillips, as he pointed out to constituents at the Brooklyn Park town hall, was not as quick to come out for impeachment as many of his urban Democratic colleagues in safer liberal districts.
Phillips also has taken pains to demonstrate that he has tuned in closely to assemble the pieces of a complicated impeachment case that he likens to a “puzzle.”
On the day that European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland asserted that “everyone was in the loop” about Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate the Biden family, there was Phillips in the hearing room, directly over Sondland’s right shoulder.
“I felt it necessary to bear with my own eyes,” Phillips said in an interview. He said he’s become convinced that Trump “placed his personal interest ahead of the national interest.”