After Lucy McBath won one of the closest races in the country, she earned a seat on the House Judiciary Committee to press for gun control — her life’s work after her teenage son, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed in 2012.
The committee gives McBath a powerful perch to advocate for change from the inside after years of working as an activist.
But it also puts her squarely in the middle of the partisan debate over whether to impeach President Donald Trump, forcing her to cast politically divisive votes on holding Attorney General Bill Barr in contempt and to question witnesses in high-profile hearings that Republicans have labeled as stunts.
For Democrats hailing from more liberal parts of the country, that might be a welcome way to boost their anti-Trump bona-fides. But for McBath, the first Democrat in 40 years to represent her district in the affluent Atlanta suburbs, it’s trouble.
Although she has avoided talk of impeachment, choosing instead to focus on gun violence and more popular issues like health care, the question still follows her.
At a town hall event with more than 300 people last weekend, one of her own supporters confronted her, saying she was concerned that McBath had not embraced launching an impeachment inquiry in the House. The woman’s question— the second out of about a dozen that day — was interrupted by applause from the audience.
McBath replied that she is “furious” about “the lack of accountability” from the Trump administration. But then, in a clear nod to her swing district, she said she did not enjoy the position the President’s actions put her in.
“I don’t like having to do this,” said McBath. “I don’t want to have to say this about our President of the United States and the White House. I take no great joy in doing this.”
Neither McBath’s displeasure nor her vague pledge — “We will get to the bottom of the truth,” she said — pleased her questioner.
If opening an impeachment inquiry carries a political cost to Democrats in 2020, McBath would be among the first to feel it. After winning her 2018 race by one percentage point, McBath is likely to face among the toughest reelection races of any of her fellow freshmen Democrats. Former Republican Rep. Karen Handel, whom she beat last time, is already running, as are other Republicans like state Sen. Brandon Beach and military veteran Nicole Rodden.
Any impeachment proceeding would begin in the House Judiciary Committee, giving McBath a role in drafting articles of impeachment against Trump, whether she wants to or not.
For House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the plight of McBath is precisely the reason she’s holding off on supporting an impeachment inquiry. As one of 43 freshmen Democrats who flipped a Republican seat in last year’s election, McBath helped create the Democratic majority in winning Newt Gingrich’s old seat.
Charging the President with crimes in an impeachment process could turn off moderate suburban voters across the country who elected Democrats primarily campaigning to protect the Affordable Care Act from a Republican assault.
House Judiciary committee chairman Jerry Nadler has privately pressed Pelosi to support opening an inquiry. But she has rebuffed his requests in attempting to unite the House Democratic caucus. To those pushing for impeachment, Pelosi reportedly says she wants Trump prosecuted for his alleged crimes after being defeated in 2020. To those urging restraint, she has given them a talking point: investigations over impeachment.
Most House Democrats have followed Pelosi, and continued to push for investigations into Trump’s campaign, finances and administration rather than an impeachment inquiry. Some of them argue that continuing to hold public hearings with high-profile witnesses like Barr, former White House counsel Don McGahn, and even Nixon-era White House counsel John Dean will draw attention to the Mueller report that many Americans haven’t read and potentially persuade more of them to support the idea of impeachment.
But ever since Barr and McGahn refused to testify despite congressional subpoena requests, dozens of progressive Democrats have come out in favor of an inquiry, increasing the pressure on Pelosi to change her mind.
In May, one House Democrat told CNN that they did not support an inquiry in part to reduce the pressure on so-called “frontline” members like McBath, before yielding to their own sense that it was the right thing to do. That member is now one of about 60 House Democrats to support an inquiry, which composes roughly a quarter of the conference.
In May, Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, who supports impeachment, told CNN that he understood it was more difficult for vulnerable Democrats like McBath to support an inquiry. “But I don’t think that the folks who elected her, elected her not to take a position on standing up and being a check and balance on Donald Trump,” said Cohen.
Focusing on other issues
So far, McBath has tried to keep a low profile on all things related to impeachment or the Russia investigation. When the spotlight is forced on her, she’s tended to steer the conversation to other topics.
At a hearing in February, she questioned then acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker about voter suppression, not the special counsel probe he oversaw. At a news conference in May, when her colleagues attacked Barr for his refusal to testify, McBath emphasized that she wanted to hear about how the Justice Department would protect the “integrity” of America’s national security, election system and health care, “not only” the Mueller report.
After voting to hold Barr in contempt for not turning over Mueller’s entire, unredacted report, McBath did not position herself behind Nadler for the cameras, as two other freshmen did.
And there will likely be more battles to come. On Tuesday, the House approved a resolution empowering the Judiciary Committee to go to court to enforce its subpoenas for Attorney General Bill Barr and former White House counsel Don McGahn.
McBath wanted a seat on the Judiciary committee not to investigate Trump but to prevent gun violence. Following the 2012 murder of her son, McBath quit her job as a Delta flight attendant to work as an activist with Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action.
With her support, over the past several months the House has passed two of the most significant gun control bills in decades, one subjecting all firearm sales to a background check and another to extend the review period from three days to ten. Neither has much of a chance of passing the GOP-controlled Senate.
“These pieces of legislation have the potential to save thousands of lives,” McBath said at a news conference last week outside the Capitol, in which she urged the Senate to pass the House’s bills. “But instead we stand here and we continue to wait.”
Other red district Democrats
While the vast majority of House Democrats from swing districts are not on the Judiciary committee, many face the same political dilemma as McBath, torn between those who say the impeachment process is the proper venue to prosecute Trump’s alleged crimes and others who would prefer to just use the ballot box.
Even though 76% of Democrats support impeaching Trump and removing him from office, only 41% of Americans feel that way, according to a recent CNN poll.
Rep. Katie Hill of California told CNN last week that House Democrats are “not there yet” on impeachment, but acknowledged that she has privately said she’d be willing to lose her seat over it.
“If and when we get there then, you know, I don’t think that it can be a political factor,” she said. “It’s about our Constitution.”
Republicans eager to pounce
Republicans are watching the Democrats’ intraparty fight with glee. Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told CNN, “If (McBath) follows lockstep with the rest of her colleagues — the ones who want impeachment — then I think it will make a difference in this race.”
Collins added that the swing voters in her district “do not like chaos.”
Handel, McBath’s potential 2020 GOP opponent, believes the next election will be more favorable for her, with Trump at the top of the ticket and McBath’s new voting record to exploit.
“What voters most care about in Georgia Six is dealing with the very real issues facing the country: securing the border, doing more to keep the economy going, the opioid crisis, health care. Those are the things that I hear the most about,” Handel told CNN. “The Mueller report is over and done.”
“It’s time to move on,” she said.
A parking lot debate
A couple days before the town hall, McBath told CNN that impeachment is “starting to come (up) a lot more” in conversations with her constituents. “I just think they’re very nervous about the direction of the country,” she said.
The dilemma facing McBath was on full display after the town hall, when two men in their fifties, Mike Mehrman and Derrick Polk, took opposing sides on the right strategy for Democrats.
Mehrman, who wore a light blue Need to Impeach t-shirt featuring a peach with a Trump hairdo, told CNN that impeachment is necessary to protect American democracy, while Polk said that an impeachment inquiry would only hurt McBath by distracting from issues such as health care, jobs, infrastructure and abortion.
“Every minute you’re talking about impeachment, you’re not talking about those things,” said Polk.
But Lori Goldstrom, 56, who asked McBath the impeachment question at her town hall, told CNN she worried her party wouldn’t show up to vote in 2020 “if they don’t see the Democrats standing up” to Trump.
“We spent a lot of time getting new voters registered for the last election,” said Goldstrom. “I’m concerned that they will not vote if they feel, ‘why bother?’”