Americans have gone to the polls four times this month to vote in major, statewide races. In Virginia, they voted for control of the state Legislature; in Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana, they voted for control of the governor’s mansion. In each case, President Donald Trump tied himself to the outcome.
“Governor @MattBevin has done a wonderful job for the people of Kentucky!” Trump tweeted before Election Day. “Matt has my Complete and Total Endorsement, and always has. GET OUT and VOTE on November 5th for your GREAT Governor, @MattBevin!”
Trump sent a similar message ahead of the Virginia elections. “Virginia, with all of the massive amount of defense and other work I brought to you, and with everything planned, go out and vote Republican today,” he said.
“The people of this country aren’t buying” impeachment, Trump said at a rally in Louisiana last week. “You see it because we’re going up, and they’re going down.
“You gotta give me a big win please,” he said later. “Please.”
Trump thought voters would repudiate impeachment and vindicate him. Instead, they did the opposite. Virginia Democrats won a legislative majority for the first time since 1993, flipping historically Republican districts. Kentucky Democrats beat incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin in a state Trump won by 30 points in 2016. And Louisiana Democrats reelected Gov. John Bel Edwards in a state Trump won by the more modest but still substantial margin of 20 points. Democrats in Mississippi made significant gains even as they fell short of victory — their nominee for governor, Jim Hood, lost by 5 1/2 points, a dramatic turnaround from four years ago, when Republican Phil Bryant won in a landslide.
It’s true that Democrats didn’t run on the issue of impeachment. These races were centered on more quotidian issues like health care, transportation and education. If anything, this was the second consecutive election cycle in which health care made the difference. In Kentucky, the Democratic candidate, Andy Beshear — whose father, also as governor, implemented the Affordable Care Act in the state — promised to protect Medicaid and hammered Bevin on his plan for work requirements. Edwards ran for reelection on his implementation of the Medicaid expansion in Louisiana, which gave coverage to more than 400,000 state residents. Medicaid was a key issue in the Mississippi race as well, where an estimated 100,000 residents would be eligible for coverage under the expansion.
But just because no one ran on impeachment doesn’t mean it wasn’t in the air. Voters could have shown they were tired of Democratic investigations. They could have elevated the president’s allies. Instead, voters handed Trump an unambiguous defeat. And that is much more than just a blow to the president’s immediate political fortunes.
To start, it confirms recent polling on impeachment. A new ABC News poll shows majority support for impeachment and even removal. Fifty-one percent say that “President Trump’s actions were wrong and he should be impeached by the House and removed from office by the Senate.” And an overwhelming 70% of Americans say that the inciting offense — Trump’s attempt to coerce Ukraine into investigating a political rival — was wrong. A similarly fresh Reuters poll has lower numbers for removal (44% of Americans say they want the House to impeach and the Senate to convict) but also shows that most Americans want Congress to investigate Trump if he “committed impeachable offenses during his conversation with the president of Ukraine.”
Worried about backlash and committed to restraint, House Democrats have limited their impeachment inquiry to the Ukraine scandal. You could read these numbers and election results as vindication — proof that Democrats were right to take a narrow, focused approach to the president’s wrongdoing.
But it’s also possible that Democrats are leaving political advantage on the table — that there’s still opportunity for an even broader investigation that tackles everything from White House involvement in Ukraine and the president’s phone calls with other foreign leaders (the records of several of these, not just the one involving Ukraine, have been inappropriately placed on a classified server) to his deals with authoritarian governments in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. These wouldn’t be fishing expeditions — given the president’s refusal to divest from his businesses or separate his personal interests from those of the state, there’s good reason to suspect inappropriate behavior across a range of areas — but they would mean a longer process. Democrats couldn’t wrap up impeachment before the end of the year. They would have to let it move at its own pace, even if it stretches well into 2020. (Watergate, remember, took more than two years to unfold.)
I don’t see the downside. A long inquiry keeps impeachment out of Mitch McConnell’s hands until there’s a comprehensive case against the president. Yes, there’s the chance of a late campaign acquittal, but if the past month is any prediction, Trump will have sustained a large amount of political damage over the course of a long investigation. It would keep him off balance, especially if further investigation uncovers even more corruption. It would also allow the six Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate to campaign through the primary season instead of returning to Washington for a trial. But most important, it would show a commitment to getting to the full truth of what’s been happening in the White House under the guise of making America great again.
Jamelle Bouie is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.