Worried about fallout, Democrats poised to poll-test impeachment

Democratic strategists are racing to figure out whether it's politically wise to call for President Donald Trump's impeachment, as one bombshell revelation after another about his ties to Russia is forcing candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives to consider the question far sooner than anyone had expected.

In a significant development, party operatives say they expect Democrats to poll-test the public's views on impeachment, trying to acquire hard data about an issue that until now has not been seriously analyzed. Other strategists say that candidates and party organizations will begin conducting focus groups on the question.

These operatives acknowledge they've been caught off guard by the speed with which impeachment has become a relevant issue — and are wary of the political damage it could cause if not handled correctly.

Even 10 days ago, before Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, few party officials had even considered such a dramatic move, which has happened only twice in American history.

"I mean, Jesus, it's not even Memorial Day!" said one Democratic operative.

Only after testing the question with voters will the party have a firmer sense of how it should act.

"I have no clue, to be honest," another Democratic operative said when asked what party strategists made of the politics of impeachment after The New York Times reported on a Comey memo that alleges Trump asked the then-FBI director to drop his probe of the president's first national security adviser. "Still processing what we're reading in The Times."

So far, only a handful of Democratic lawmakers have outright called for impeachment. Most have preferred a more cautious approach, calling for a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into Trump officials' possible ties to Russia.

Democratic strategists emphasized that they expect that questions of independent investigations — and not calls for impeachment — will be the overwhelming focus for the party in the coming days.

But on Tuesday night, CNN reported that even Republican lawmakers are now debating whether to support an independent prosecutor or independent commission after the latest round of revelations.

And some Democrats are starting to at least entertain the possibility of impeachment.

"If it is, in fact, true, then yes, that is an impeachable offense," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, on CNN.

Last week, Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin suggested the country needed an "impeachment clock" to track how close the president was to being removed from office.

Pressure might also mount from the party's liberal base, which has grown in size and relevance since Trump's election, to call for impeachment.

One progressive leader called impeachment a "no-brainer."

"Impeachment is the only way to stop Donald Trump, whose corruption and incompetence is placing our country in greater danger with each passing day," said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America.

Still, some Democrats expressed skepticism that impeachment is the right move for the party. Tom Perez, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, stuck to his message that a special, independent investigation is needed.

"This is why we need a special prosecutor," he said. "The evidence is mounting by the day. But as long as Republicans continue putting party over country, justice will never be served. Make no mistake: Their complacency is complicity, and history will remember them as cowards."

The problem, these more wary Democrats argue, is that so much of the playing field during next year's midterm elections is in states or districts favorable to Trump.

Senate Democrats must defend 10 states that Trump won during last year's election.

"Voting for a check on Trump is one thing," said one national Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly about party strategy. "But if a vote for a check on the president ... becomes a de facto vote for an impeachment trial, the task in front of us will only get more difficult."

Another operative said he expects that the House GOP's health care bill — the American Health Care Act — still would play a bigger role in next year's midterm elections.

"Health care remains the most personal issue facing voters," he said. "Until that's taken off the table completely, it's hard to see how that doesn't motivate the backlash."