As momentum for impeachment built among House Democrats this week, progressives challenging incumbent members of Congress sensed an opportunity.
The opposition to impeachment from the House members they were running against had become a key campaign talking point ― framed as a lack of courage in the face of President Donald Trump’s power, which reflected a flawed and outdated approach to governing.
Jessica Cisneros, the public interest attorney challenging Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas, was a case in point. On Tuesday morning, Cuellar said that the House committees investigating Trump should “continue” their work before the House formally took up impeachment proceedings. The stance made Cuellar, a member of the centrist Blue Dog Caucus, an outlier among Texas’ House Democrats, all of whom had backed impeachment by then.
Cisneros blasted him. Cuellar’s statement, she said, “proves he’d rather toe the Trump line than take a stand for our country and this community.”
But what happened next illustrates the difficulty for Cisneros and other primary challengers hoping to capitalize on the march toward impeachment.
Cisneros’ attack apparently hit the mark. Cuellar began to change his tune later in the day. In a revised statement, Cuellar said, “No one is above the law and if investigations prove that impeachment is the necessary course of action, then I will be forced to act on impeachment proceedings.” The stronger rhetoric was enough for The New York Times and Politico to count him among their tallies of House Democrats who are at least supportive of an impeachment inquiry.
Cisneros took credit for the shift on social media.
But the back-and-forth illustrates a challenge for Cisneros and her fellow insurgent candidates as they seek to capitalize on an issue where they had led: They are victims of their own success.
Virtually every House Democrat facing a primary challenge from the left has lent their support to an impeachment inquiry against Trump, including several who changed their stance after challengers announced their runs and others, like Cuellar, who came around to the idea just in the past few days.
These candidates have been appealing to voters to reward them for their integrity ― for supporting impeachment and other tough-minded policies before it became politically expedient.
But now that the incumbents they are facing support the same underlying stance, the challengers have a trickier case to make to voters.
“It’s very hard to make that argument,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic campaign consultant. Support for impeachment is “just enough to muddy the waters.”
“Regardless of the issue, if a candidate flip-flops in their direction, voters are much more forgiving than if you flip against them,” Mikus added.
The pattern in the Cisneros-Cuellar contest is mirrored most closely by the dynamic in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, where former Flagstaff City Councilwoman Eva Putzova is challenging Democratic Rep. Tom O’Halleran.
O’Halleran, an ex-Republican who has represented the vast swing seat since 2017, was until Friday one of the last Democratic holdouts against impeachment ― and the only House Democrat from his state not to get on board. Putzova called him out about it on Twitter, arguing that it was “time for #TimidTom to go.”
“One of the main purposes of a primary challenge is, of course, to win but also to move the issues.”
By Wednesday, after a statement earlier in the week declining to endorse impeachment, O’Halleran declared that he supported an impeachment inquiry.
Other incumbents’ shifts have been more subtle but likewise notable for their timing. Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, under threat from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, came out for the impeachment inquiry after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did on Tuesday. Rep. Tom Suozzi of New York, who faces primary challenges from Long Island activist Melanie D’Arrigo and former prosecutor Michael Weinstock, also endorsed an impeachment inquiry on Tuesday morning.
And back in July, Rep. Eliot Engel of New York backed an impeachment inquiry. Engel cited special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony before Congress as the proximate cause. But Engel also made the announcement just over a month after middle school principal Jamaal Bowman announced a primary run against him.
“For a lot of centrist Democrats facing primaries, impeachment gave them a chance to flash their anti-Trump credentials,” Mikus said.
Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats, which is backing Cisneros, Bowman and Morse, said that shifting the debate is a victory in itself.
“One of the main purposes of a primary challenge is, of course, to win but also to move the issues,” Shahid said.
Rebecca Katz, a consultant advising some of the progressive challengers, insists that the gap between incumbents and their rivals is enough to give the insurgents a boost at the polls.
“This is more convincing evidence that you don’t just need Democrats in Washington. You need better Democrats, Democrats who will fight,” Katz said. “How many bad things have happened while we’ve waited for this bad thing?”
For some progressive challengers, making that case may be easier than for others.
As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has oversight over tax policy, Neal has drawn criticism from liberal activists for the slow pace with which he has forced Trump to disclose his tax returns. It took until April for Neal to demand Trump’s federal tax returns; he has since failed to take advantage of a New York law allowing him to access Trump’s state returns. And though House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of California helped make the Trump administration’s refusal to hand over the complaint of an intelligence community whistleblower headline news, Neal has been relatively silent about another whistleblower accusing Trump of trying to tamper with an audit of his taxes.
“His lack of leadership and his slow-walking on a number of issues have kicked the can down the road and endangered our democracy at a vital time,” Morse said. “He wields a tremendous amount of power, but it’s not being used in the country’s best interest.”
Peter Panos, a spokesperson for the Neal campaign, defended Neal’s handling of investigations of Trump.
“Richie Neal is the one being sued by Donald Trump,” Panos said. “Richie did not pick this fight, but he will not shy away from it. No amount of threats or lawsuits will deter him from upholding his constitutional duties as co-equal branch of government.”