Washington – For both parties, the impeachment battle is opening a new period of uncertainty for Minnesota lawmakers facing 2020 races that could remake the state’s political landscape.
So far, the impeachment seems only to be deepening the partisan divide, with all three Minnesota Republicans in Congress saying Wednesday that President Donald Trump should not be removed from office for urging Ukraine’s president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, standing firm against the new Democratic impeachment inquiry.
The show of GOP resolve is accompanied by the growing determination among Democrats, though in some cases reluctant, to force a constitutional confrontation with Trump.
Among the last Minnesota Democrats to come out in support of the unfolding impeachment process was Sen. Tina Smith, who will face voters next year during a presidential election that could hinge on Midwest battlegrounds.
She will likely face former GOP congressman Jason Lewis, a stalwart Trump supporter who has accused her of “rushing to judgment” without firm evidence.
The partisan standoff went into overdrive Wednesday as the White House released a summary of the July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In the call, Trump repeatedly told Zelensky he should open an investigation of Biden, now a leading 2020 Democratic candidate.
Lawmakers in Minnesota and elsewhere are being forced to navigate the contours of the impeachment fight even before hearing from the whistleblower at the heart of the allegations, and before seeing the details of the unknown official’s complaint.
The information vacuum has left room for competing narratives of presidential corruption or, in Trump’s uppercase formulation on Twitter, “PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT.”
So far, Minnesota Republicans are sticking with Trump and warning of electoral consequences for Smith and other DFLers next year in an election that could largely be a referendum on the president.
“There’s nothing in the [transcript] that would support impeachment, this process that [Speaker] Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats have started,” said Minnesota U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the House GOP’s campaign arm. “Absolutely nothing.”
Emmer, along with fellow Republican Reps. Jim Hagedorn and Pete Stauber, all said they saw no quid pro quo in the report of the exchange between Trump and Zelensky. Of the three, Democrats have made Hagedorn their primary 2020 target.
Stauber and Hagedorn both represent largely rural districts previously held by Democrats but where Trump did well in 2016. In statements to the Star Tribune, both called the impeachment process a distraction that would prevent Congress from making progress on issues facing the country.
“Impeachment is not to be taken lightly and I think it was irresponsible for the speaker to bring forward an impeachment inquiry without having any shred of evidence that wrongdoing occurred,” Stauber said. Hagedorn called the impeachment inquiry “political nonsense.”
Among the seven Minnesota Democrats in Congress, all but Rep. Collin Peterson now publicly support the impeachment inquiry, which Pelosi announced Tuesday. Along with Smith, the last to come on board were Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, both freshmen in suburban Twin Cities swing districts. Both ousted GOP incumbents, including Lewis, who lost to Craig in a south-metro district Trump narrowly won in 2016.
After months of holding out against the impeachment efforts sparked by the special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Smith shifted her stance Tuesday, citing Trump’s efforts to solicit Ukrainian aid in attacking Biden.
“The American people should be able to trust that the President of the United States will act in the best interests of our country,” Smith said in a statement Wednesday. “The record of the phone call between President Trump and the leader of Ukraine shows that the president put his own personal and political gain ahead of national security.”
If the Democratic-controlled House impeaches Trump, the case would then go to the Republican-controlled Senate for a vote on whether he should be removed from office. That raises the strong likelihood that Congress will still be grappling with the issue as its members — and Trump himself — begin their re-election campaigns.
Many Republicans, including Trump, have expressed confidence that a House vote to impeach would benefit Trump and his party. Emmer cited polls that have shown low public support for impeachment to date.
“Their hatred for this president is going to cost them their majority in 2020,” Emmer said of Democrats.
Lewis, Smith’s likely Republican opponent, sent out a fundraising plea on Wednesday asking supporters for an “emergency contribution” to help him push back against impeachment.
Democrats also began fundraising off the impeachment fight, including Craig.
“National Republicans are already saying that putting our country first and standing up for what’s right will cost me my seat,” she wrote in a tweet Tuesday that included a link to a donation form. “Let’s make sure they’re wrong.”
Pelosi, the top House Democrat, had previously resisted impeachment calls from within her own party at least partly out of concern that it could cost Democrats politically. But the Ukraine revelations prompted many more moderate Democrats to support the inquiry.
Impeachment also is likely to be a significant factor for Peterson, a rural Democrat in a northwestern Minnesota district that backed Trump by more than 30 points in 2016. Peterson was one of 31 Democrats who voted for the GOP impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998.
In a statement Tuesday, Peterson tried to distance himself from the Democratic effort now underway, saying that “without significant bipartisan support, impeachment proceedings will be a lengthy and divisive action with no resolution.”