SAN ANTONIO - Republican activists who gathered over Texas barbecue here last week said they were stunned when Rep. Will Hurd, the rare Republican in Congress who is willing to publicly criticize President Donald Trump, joined every other member of his party in voting against holding public impeachment hearings.
"It was a shocker," said George Rodriguez, a conservative radio host, blogger and enthusiastic Trump backer who is no fan of Hurd. "When I heard it was 100% I said: 'What? Does that mean Will Hurd?'"
In Illinois, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a former Air Force pilot who said it was "beyond repugnant" when the president suggested that impeachment would lead to civil war, also voted the party line last month. So did Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, who said the House should look into "legitimate questions" about Trump's campaign to enlist Ukraine to smear his political rivals.
As House Democrats embark on nationally televised impeachment hearings this week to make their case that Trump has abused his office, no group will have as much control over the president's future as critics within his own party. If they stick with him, as they have so far, Republicans will be able to write off impeachment as a useless partisan exercise.
But if they turn on him, it could forever mar his presidency, lending an air of legitimacy to the effort to oust him and giving voters reason to consider abandoning him. Republican lawmakers stood behind President Richard Nixon for two years of Watergate investigations, only to desert him en masse after the release of tapes contradicting his denial of wrongdoing. While few strategists in either party expect a wave of defections along those lines, even a few would be deeply damaging for Trump, and House Republican leaders are working feverishly to guard against even a hint of dissent in their ranks during the impeachment debate.
Hurd, Kinzinger and Upton will be lawmakers to watch. None agreed to be interviewed for this article. But all three have made noises that suggest they are open to impeachment. Hurd has said there is "damning" evidence against Trump, and on Sunday told Fox News that if he concluded that the president used his office to get damaging information on a political rival, he would "have to truly consider whether impeachment is the right tool or not." Kinzinger said he wanted "to know what happened." Upton has called the president's actions on Ukraine "disconcerting."
That they have fallen in line behind the president - at least for now - reflects the power of Trump's base, and their fear of invoking the wrath of a vindictive president who could end their careers with a single tweet. While Trump voters may tolerate criticism of the president's behavior or policies, impeachment is different.
"You tick off your base and you don't win other-party support, so you get the worst of both worlds," said Neil Newhouse, who has surveyed attitudes on impeachment for the House Republicans' campaign arm.
Some House Republicans have already learned that the hard way. When Rep. Francis Rooney, who represents a deep-red district in Florida, said he "could not rule out" voting for impeachment, Trump and his Republican allies created such an uproar that he announced his retirement within days.
Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., who said he agreed with a Democratic senator that Congress should "follow the facts," was forced to explain himself to the Trump campaign's political director, House Republican leaders and the acting White House chief of staff. Then he walked back his words.
Other Republicans, including Hurd, are heading for the exits. On Monday, Rep. Peter T. King, R-N.Y., became the 20th Republican to say he will step down at the end of the term. Some are tired of being in the minority and of having to defend Trump.
"These members saw what happened to Jeff Flake in Arizona," said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, referring to the former senator and Trump critic who declined to seek reelection last year. "As soon as he became critical of Trump, his approval rating plummeted among Republicans and didn't get much better among Democrats. The result was that he had no base to run for reelection."
That appears to be the case for Hurd, one of just three House Republicans representing districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 (the others are John Katko of New York and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania). Hurd, the House's lone black Republican, is not running for reelection, but he has talked of a possible White House bid in 2024 and is hoping to expand the party's tent.
Polls show that the public is split on impeachment largely along party lines. A New York Times/Siena College survey last month found that in the six closest states carried by the president in 2016, registered voters supported the impeachment inquiry by a 5-point margin, 50% to 45%. But the same voters opposed impeaching Trump and removing him from office, 53% to 43%.
"I look at this kind of like the Kavanaugh hearings," Newhouse said, referring to the partisan battle last year over confirming Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual assault but ultimately prevailed on a mostly party-line vote. "Both sides are going to put out their best stuff and everybody's going to end up where they began."
Here in Texas, where Hurd's district stretches from El Paso to San Antonio and includes more than 800 miles of border with Mexico, the congressman's frequent criticisms of Trump, especially on television, appear to have earned him few friends at either end of the political spectrum. He decided to retire from Congress just weeks after he called the president's tweets attacking four minority congresswomen "racist and xenophobic."
In Illinois, Kinzinger's narrow criticism of Trump's inflammatory language has irked constituents in more conservative parts of his district, which covers a large area of the central and northern parts of the state. And the president's campaign staff took note: Kinzinger was pointedly left off the state's leadership team for Trump's Illinois reelection drive.
In southwestern Michigan, Upton has earned a reputation as a moderate, well liked by members of both political parties, in his 30-plus years on Capitol Hill. He is no Trump acolyte. He declined to endorse Trump in 2016 and has joked to friends that he has offered to give the president a pair of cuff links bearing the congressman's own monogram: "F.U."
So his call for an investigation after the White House released the transcript of Trump's call with the Ukrainian president was perhaps less surprising than what came next: a full-throated condemnation of Democrats' investigation as a "closed-off process," and a dinner with Trump at the Trump International Hotel blocks from the White House, where they were photographed sitting together over a plate of jumbo shrimp cocktail, alongside House Republican leaders.
Upton knows he is walking a political tightrope. He won reelection by 4.5 percentage points in 2018, the tightest margin in his career, and lost Kalamazoo County, the most populous in his district, for the first time.
"Will people support him for making his own independent judgment, which may even include voting to impeach?" asked David Eyke, the chairman of the Republican Party of Kalamazoo County, as the party faithful filed into its Lincoln Tribute Dinner last week. "There's just a lot of blood in the water on this one on both sides. And Fred's going to have to make his own independent decision, and I know he'll do that, because that's the way Fred is."
Eyke paused for a moment: "Whether his district will support him in that? I can't tell you. It's hard to know."
Newhouse's polling for the House Republicans' campaign arm in battleground districts found that most voters in those areas believed Trump had not committed an impeachable offense when he pressed the president of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. The poll also found that a majority of voters said Democrats had not accomplished much while controlling the House and that impeachment would sidetrack them even further, according to a report compiled by Newhouse.
In Texas, where Hurd is one of six Republicans who have decided to retire from the House, views on impeachment are hardening along party lines.
At an election night party for Democrats in Pflugerville, a fast-growing city in a generally conservative area north of Austin, John Barajas and his wife, Teresa, were a microcosm of the divide. He is a Democrat and approves of the impeachment inquiry. She is a Republican and does not.
Teresa Barajas expressed the views of many: "I just want it to be over."
In San Antonio, at the Patriots' Summit, a monthly luncheon meeting of Republicans, where the party faithful spent the lunch hour on Wednesday dining on brisket and pulled pork barbecue sandwiches, the universal sentiment was that Trump was the victim of Democrats who were having "a temper tantrum," in Rodriguez's words, about the results of the 2016 election.
Hurd has taken issue with the way Democrats are handling the impeachment inquiry, complaining that Republicans do not have enough access to witnesses. But he has also said he thinks the investigation is a necessary part of congressional oversight.
In a recent interview with The New Yorker, he expressed alarm over the shadow diplomacy conducted by Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, in Ukraine.
"You shouldn't have two efforts, right?" he said, adding that there was a pattern that clearly went beyond Ukraine. "You shouldn't have the formal effort and the informal effort."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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