There’s an avalanche of new support for opening an impeachment inquiry among the House Democratic caucus members into President Donald Trump.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the first Democrat to represent her district in almost 50 years, is happy to let those calls happen without her.
The moderate freshman who unseated conservative ringleader David Brat in Virginia’s 7th district last fall is fighting to hold on to the center in a Democratic Party that seems to be moving further to her left.
A mother of three who grew up outside of Richmond, graduated from college and joined the CIA working covertly, Spanberger’s more comfortable under the radar than being thrust into the headlines of the day’s news. On the same night Democratic presidential candidates took the stage in Detroit to debate “Medicare For All,” Spanberger spent an hour-long town hall meeting in her home district talking a lot about all the ways in which Democrats should fight to protect the Affordable Care Act already on the books. She tamped down impeachment talk as a fellow Virginia Democrat, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, came out in support of it.
“She really feels like she has a north star and it’s not the caucus, it’s not the presidential (race), it’s not the daily drama. Her north star is trying to be a good representative of her district,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia who campaigned with Spanberger in 2018. “The controversies within the caucus are just not that important to her.”
Things haven’t exactly been easy for a moderate freshman.
Spanberger came to Washington in the throes of a government shutdown in January, elected on a blue wave made up of dozens of centrist Democrats like herself. But she is in the same class as a small number of progressive insurgents who have made names for themselves touting how Democrats need to impeach the President – some more colorfully than others. Last month, some of those progressive lawmakers attacked their moderate colleagues for backing an emergency spending bill for the border they said didn’t do enough to crack down on Trump administration immigration policies. And freshman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has pushed for a Green New Deal that isn’t popular in districts like Spanberger’s. They’re happy sparring with the President (and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) on Twitter.
That is not Spanberger’s style.
“I reject all drama. I mean all drama,” she emphasized in an interview with CNN after the town hall meeting Tuesday night. “Because it doesn’t do anything. It does not serve any purpose. It is totally not effective.”
A different kind of Democrat
In 2020, Spanberger’s fate will inextricably be linked to that of her party’s presidential nominee, and if Republicans have their way, also tied to provocations of more headline-grabbing freshman colleagues.
Spanberger is trying to define her own race. She voted against Pelosi for speaker earlier this year and has positioned herself as a Democrat who isn’t ashamed of cutting deals with Republicans. She totes that the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group that meets weekly, is a highlight of her time in Washington, and she name-drops conservative leader and Trump confidant Rep. Mark Meadows at her town hall Tuesday, telling constituents they worked together on legislation to crack down on child pornography.
Since coming to Congress, Spanberger says she has taken the lessons from the 2018 midterms to heart: stick to the issues, talk about health care, prescription drug costs, the economy and jobs.
“I reject all of the drama because the reality of it is that people who are trying to pay their bills, people who are trying to feed their kids, and people who are working two jobs and retirees who are worried about how they are going to live off of Social Security, they don’t care about this flashy personality,” Spanberger told CNN. “They don’t care about who is on the cover of what magazine, they care about the issues that impact their life and they want me to care about those things.”
Democrats may have taken back the House majority in 2018 – and won in more than 30 districts Trump carried in 2016 by talking about pocketbook issues – but moderates like Spanberger have lamented that the perception nationally is that the party may have lost touch with those lessons when there is such a focus on investigations and impeachment.
“You are never going to be able to get Trump to not be the center of the national news, but what you can do is go back to your district and you can say ‘this is what we are doing on the issues that you elected me to do,’ ” fellow moderate freshman Katie Hill of California said in a Capitol Hill interview before the House started its August recess.
Spanberger argues her constituents aren’t consumed by the intra-party squabbles and the will-they-won’t-they drama on impeachment.
Asked if she thinks there is a disconnect in Washington between what is covered and what matters across the country to people in districts like hers, Spanberger smiles.
“If you don’t mind me being a bit sassy,” she said. “Do you?”
An impeachment focus in Washington
The tally of House Democrats backing an impeachment inquiry into the President has grown to at least 114 members in recent days, just shy of a majority of the caucus. The constant swirl of whether Pelosi will permit her caucus to move ahead dominates the news cycle and fights over documents for Democratic investigations have gone to court to be decided.
But, at the town hall meeting in Culpeper, Virginia, Spanberger barely touched on impeachment or investigations. Instead, she was inundated with questions about solar panel developments on farmlands in the county. When the only impeachment question came up (and the questioners are drawn from a random lottery), Spanberger was already halfway through her town hall.
She settled into her usual answer about how she was not there yet, and it was a process. She repeated that she doesn’t like to pre-judge outcomes and the committee of jurisdiction is still doing its work. She reminded voters she’s not on the relevant committee – House Judiciary – that would likely open the inquiry.
Democrats in her district – even those who’d happily see the President impeached – are sympathetic to Spanberger’s political high-wire act. Yes, some wish she would back impeachment, but they are aware that her embrace of it could be her political undoing.
Linda Ross, a Democratic constituent, said she and her husband have written to Spanberger asking her to support moving forward with an impeachment inquiry, but she admits “it’s a dilemma.”
Dave Bell, a local constituent, said there was “ample evidence” to begin an impeachment inquiry. But, he said “for Congresswoman Spanberger to have to make a decision on that right now in a district such as she represents, it could be problematic because we know it is not going to go anywhere in the Senate.”
“It’s a lost cause at this point. I mean we need to focus on what we can do from a change standpoint and try and affect that change. Impeaching the President? It’s never going to happen,” said voter Alicia Pitori.
How long can she hold off?
At her town hall, Spanberger opens by talking about prescription drug legislation she’s pushed for and she highlights the number of constituent services cases her office has tackled. She tells CNN that she has had a simple rule of thumb for deciding if something deserves her attention.
Last year, a tornado ripped through one of the most southern parts of Spanberger’s district. Jennifer, a constituent her office said would prefer not to give her last name, survived by placing her two boys in a bathtub then throwing herself over them in her trailer as the storm ripped off the roof.
“When I think about all this stupid stuff and all of the drama, I think does any of this matter to Jennifer? Is this going to help her boys get a good education, is this going to help her put food on the table, is this going to make sure that 25 years from now, when she is finally ready to retire, she is actually able to? And if the answer to that is no, then I don’t care about it,” Spanberger said.
When asked about “the soap opera of Congress,” Spanberger is prepared to respond.
“I grew up on the ‘Real World,’” she said, a reference to the MTV reality series. “I don’t need to live it.”