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Mounting Impeachment Drama Shakes Up Battleground Texas Races

Associated Press
U.S. Capitol building

It was almost another one of those Trump-era days when the mayhem of the national capital could be felt back home in Texas.

Except this day felt bigger, more consequential, and some members said, possibly even a little frightening.

House Democrats moved swiftly and with fierce determination toward impeachment. It was an unfathomable act only a week ago, as members of Congress grappled over revelations that President Trump allegedly withheld military aid from Ukraine in exchange for a politicized investigation into the business activities of the son of his possible 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

"We were not expecting this," said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat. "We didn't orchestrate this."

“This is frightening,” she later said. “I just don’t think we can wait much longer.”

Democrats across the Capitol echoed her sentiment.

There was a startled sense to the way the day played out. What made the moment so dramatic was that, across the country and in Texas, vulnerable freshmen Democrats said they would push for impeachment if the Trump administration did not release a whistleblower complaint over the Ukranian matter. Few seemed interested in discussing the possible reelection ramifications back home in their districts, and the political mood changed so quickly that it appeared some of these Democrats were flying blind — they had not had time to test out how impeachment will play in their districts.

“Here you have a clear case of the president abusing his power very directly against a political rival; the Mueller report involved many different pieces… this is a much more direct interaction that the president had with a foreign president," said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, echoing numerous other Capitol Hill Democrats on Tuesday.

The dramatic turn began Tuesday morning, when U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, issued a statement saying that if the director of national intelligence did not turn over the whistleblower report, "the only remaining option is for the House to begin impeachment proceedings." About two hours later, U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, D-Houston, put out a statement saying that the House "should act swiftly to investigate and should be prepared to use the remedy exclusively in its power: impeachment."

The statements from the two most endangered Texas Democrats in Congress — both flipped historically red districts last year — drew swift criticism from national GOP groups and the Republican Texas candidates already targeting the two in 2020.

Fletcher was a particular focal point for Republican umbrage. One of her challengers, military veteran Wesley Hunt, released a flood of robo-calls to voters in the district that said Fletcher "is just like the radical squad — she hates President Trump so much that it distorts her view of reality. I’m Wesley Hunt and I will stand with President Trump."

Allred’s and Fletcher’s races weren’t the only ones in Texas where the growing impeachment drumbeat reverberated Tuesday. Hours before Pelosi's announcement, Wendy Davis, the leading Democratic candidate to challenge U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, joined the impeachment calls with a statement that sought to thread a needle, calling on lawmakers to "launch an impeachment inquiry and then immediately return the focus" to issues like health care.

Among the Texas GOP congressmen who chose to weigh in Tuesday, skepticism and caution were common. The group included U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul — another Republican in a tough reelection fight — who spoke out in his capacity as the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

"Unfortunately, House Democrats are moving forward to impeach President Trump based on only press reports and hearsay," he said. "It’s a disappointing rush to judgment because we don’t even have the basic facts yet."

The three Democrats challenging McCaul, meanwhile, had all backed an impeachment inquiry before Tuesday. One of them, Austin doctor Pritesh Gandhi, issued a statement Thursday afternoon calling on the incumbent to "set politics aside and show leadership on this matter" by backing an inquiry.

The growing impeachment crusade also rippled into the Democratic primary to take on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. Two of the primary candidates, Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez and Chris Bell, tweeted their support for impeachment prior to Pelosi's news conference Thursday, while a third contender, state Sen. Royce West, did so shortly after her announcement. A fourth candidate, Sema Hernandez, has previously voiced support for impeaching Trump and did so again Tuesday evening.

West, of Dallas, issued a longer statement Tuesday evening calling the impeachment inquiry "a long time coming" and Trump's dealings with Ukraine "treasonous" if true.

The flurry of pro-impeachment comments gave Republicans an opening to pressure other hopefuls in the crowded primary.

"As leaders of their Party keep racing to the left, Texans deserve to know whether the remaining Democratic candidates will follow," Joanna Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.

The impeachment boomlet also factored into the race for the 28th Congressional District, where Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, faces primary challenger Jessica Cisneros. After Cuellar emerged Tuesday morning as the lone holdout on impeachment among Texas Democrats in Congress, Cisneros seized quickly on his reluctance, calling for impeachment herself and saying in a statement that "it's time for Rep. Cuellar to put his constitutional duty ahead of his support for Trump."

By the afternoon, Cuellar had updated his statement on the matter to signal a new openness to impeachment without explicitly endorsing it.

“If you look at the polls, where is the American public?" Cuellar told reporters at the Capitol. "Is there an overwhelming movement to impeach? It’s not there yet… There are some members who I hope take the right precision and make the right vote on that. For some of my members, I am a little apprehensive."

For now, there is a sense of inevitability in Washington. Unless the Trump administration releases the whistleblower complaint and the allegations against the president are overblown, impeachment in the Democratic-controlled House is more than likely to happen. The Republican-held Senate will then take up the issue in a trial that most anticipate for now will acquit Trump.

But impeachment will not materialize in the near future — members are expected to fly home at the end of the week to their districts for a two-week recess. And no matter which party they're in, the onus will be on each member and candidate to make their cases to their voters.

"I'm trying to have a little faith in the American people," said Jackson Lee.

J. Edward Moreno contributed to this report.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.

Abby Livingston joined the Tribune in 2014 as the publication's first Washington Bureau Chief. Previously, she covered political campaigns, House leadership and Congress for Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. A seventh-generation Texan, Abby graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. She grew up in Fort Worth and has appeared in an episode of "The Bold and The Beautiful." Abby pitched and produced political segments for CNN and worked as an editor for The Hotline, National Journal’s campaign tipsheet. Abby began her journalism career as a desk assistant at NBC News in Washington, working her way up to the political unit, where she researched stories for Nightly News, the Today Show and Meet the Press. In keeping with the Trib’s great history of hiring softball stars, Abby is a three-time MVP (the most in game history —Ed.) for The Bad News Babes, the women’s press softball team that takes on female members of Congress in the annual Congressional Women’s Softball breast cancer charity game.
Patrick Svitek is a reporter for the Texas Tribune. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.