There's an awful lot we don't know yet: how public opinion will respond to the declassified whistleblower report, how many months an impeachment inquiry could take, what other wrongdoing it could reveal, and whether Dems will ultimately have 218 votes to pass articles of impeachment (at 235 seats, they can afford no more than 18 defections, assuming Independent Rep. Justin Amash votes to impeach).
The best case scenario for Democrats is that an all-consuming investigation into the president's alleged abuse of his office takes a lasting toll on Trump's standing with independents and he loses reelection by a substantial margin, dragging congressional Republican fortunes down with him.
The worst case scenario for Democrats would be that independents view them as leading a fruitless endeavor that distracts from addressing the country's problems - and that the saga polarizes House races along the lines of 2016 results, imperiling 31 Democrats in Trump-won districts and the majority as Trump rides a strong economy to reelection.
But at the outset, here's what we do know:
- Despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi's reluctance all year to pursue an impeachment inquiry, she had no choice but to take this step. Setting aside the merits of the Ukraine matter, her failure to launch an inquiry at this juncture would have been viewed by her members and the Democratic base as an abdication of constitutional responsibility.
- At the same time, there is almost certainly no chance of impeachment resulting in a conviction in the Senate - which would require the support of at least 20 of 53 Republicans. Given Trump's grip on the GOP, the incentive to close ranks is overwhelming. If anything, Trump and sympathetic media voices/members are already seeking to use the spectacle to deflect attention to Hunter Biden's business dealings in Ukraine.
- Impeachment is an escalation that now divides Democrats, not Republicans, in the most vulnerable House districts. It was "national security" freshmen from swing seats - Reps. Abigail Spanberger (VA-07), Mikie Sherrill (NJ-10), Elissa Slotkin (MI-08) and four others - whose letter shifted the impeachment dynamic from plausible to inevitable. But others from Trump districts, including Reps. Jeff Van Drew (NJ-02), Anthony Brindisi (NY-22) and Collin Peterson (MN-07), have expressed their discomfort with pursuing an inquiry a year before voters can weigh in and are unlikely to change their thinking anytime soon.
- And, it's an escalation that will galvanize the Trump/Republican base and gives GOP donors - who may have begun to write off the House - a sudden jolt of motivation to target Democrats in Trump districts. To date, the focus on Republican retirements has painted a bleak picture for the NRCC. But it's not difficult to imagine impeachment becoming a rallying cry and recruitment tool to win Trump-won seats back.
- One of the reasons Democrats have remained favored to hold their majority is their early financial dominance in the 31 "Trump Democrat" districts, the GOP's only realistic path back to the majority. At the end of June, the median Democrat in those 31 seats had $818,000 in cash on hand, while 15 districts lacked a GOP challenger altogether and the median leading Republican in the other 16 districts had just $219,000 on hand.
But, impeachment hearings could be rocket fuel for GOP recruitment and fundraising in these districts, at a time House Republicans need it most.
On the extreme end, DCCC Chair Rep. Cheri Bustos (IL-17) had $2.3 million in the bank while no challenger had filed an FEC report. And, Slotkin, Sherrill and Spanberger each had over $1 million in the bank while only Spanberger had a challenger who had filed an FEC report, with just $161,000 in cash on hand. But January's FEC reports could easily tell a much more competitive story.
A decent indicator of how impeachment could play in "red" districts will be this year's gubernatorial contests in Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky. Although all three states are significantly redder than most of the Trump-won districts Democrats represent, a GOP sweep of all three would reflect a surge in Republican base enthusiasm and could make a few Democrats on this list more uncomfortable.
It's not fair to compare this moment to 1974, when partisan cable news and social media didn't exist, or to 1998, when impeachment concerned a president's personal indiscretions rather than foreign election interference. We are in uncharted territory, and patience is warranted in evaluating whether impeachment proceedings will alter Democrats' advantage in the 2020 race for the House.
Image Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite