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    Capuano seizes on impeachment as he tries to fend off liberal challenge

    Representative Michael E. Capuano
    Steven Senne/Associated Press
    Representative Michael E. Capuano

    For most of last year, Representative Michael E. Capuano rejected calls from constituents demanding the impeachment of President Trump.

    “We have to respect the process,” Capuano wrote in his May 2017 newsletter, declaring that he would wait for Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. “It shouldn’t be a witch hunt or a political statement.”

    Two months later, he again urged caution: “I will wait for a thorough investigation,” he proclaimed in his newsletter.

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    But in December, Capuano voted for a House resolution to impeach Trump — the first of two votes he would cast to begin debate on impeachment.

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    He is now featuring these votes in one of his first online ads, despite Democratic leaders’ concern that making impeachment a campaign issue could trigger a potent Republican backlash in November.

    Capuano’s change of heart came as he was bracing for a potential challenge from the left, one that materialized in January when Ayanna Pressley, a liberal Boston city councilor, entered the Democratic primary for the seat with a vow to take a more activist stance against Trump.

    “In Congress, I’ve always delivered for the district, but what’s most important right now is stopping Donald Trump,” Capuano says in the 15-second ad. “That’s why I voted twice to begin impeachment proceedings and why I’m fighting to have Congress condemn his racist behavior.”

    Alison Mills, a Capuano spokeswoman, said the congressman was not available for an interview to explain why he shifted his stance. She said in a statement it was based on his “mounting concern, month after month, over Trump’s policies and actions.”

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    “His votes to advance impeachment reflect what is in his heart — his belief that Trump is unfit to be president and a danger to our democracy,” Mills said.

    The strategy of pushing impeachment during the midterm elections has worried Democratic leaders who believe it will turn off the swing voters that the party needs to regain control of the House.

    “Impeachment is, to me, divisive,” House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, a Capuano supporter, said last month on CNN. “Again, if the facts are there — if the facts are there — then this would have to be bipartisan to go forward. But if it is viewed as partisan, it will divide the country, and I just don’t think that’s what we should do.”

    Republicans who believe they can exploit the issue to their advantage point to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll released in April that found 47 percent of voters nationwide would definitely vote against a candidate who promises to impeach Trump, compared to 42 percent who would definitely vote for such a candidate.

    “It’s an effective weapon we will use against Democrats not based in Cambridge,” said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

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    Capuano, however, is courting primary voters in a liberal, Boston-based district where anti-Trump sentiment runs deep. Seizing on impeachment could also help him blunt Pressley’s appeal to the so-called Democratic resistance.

    “He is trying to outflank his opponent on the left and this is catnip for the base, with little downside risk in a general [election],” said David Axelrod, President Obama’s former chief strategist. “Overall, though, Democrats in more competitive districts run a risk by embracing impeachment now, before Mueller even reports back, one way or another. That’s why most are not, and why the Republicans, fearful of a slumbering base, are eager to nationalize these races and raise the specter of impeachment.”

    Republicans say they are thrilled that some Democrats are embracing the “I-word.”

    “I think there are a number of Democrats who understand that it motivates the furthest reaches of the left in a way that few other messages do, so they’re going to try to take advantage of it,” said Josh Holmes, former chief of staff to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky. “But for any voter in the center-left, not to mention center-right, talk of impeachment is sort of a hallmark of partisanship and extremism.”

    Mark Paustenbach, a former Obama communications adviser, said that ultimately, members of Congress need to listen to their constituents on the issue.

    “But there are risks nationally,” he said. “For example, impeachment proceedings might make the president a sympathetic figure, or they could energize Republican voters who want to defend their party and the presidency even if they aren’t fans of Trump.”

    Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, said he tells candidates to focus instead on bread-and-butter issues like Republican attempts to slash Medicare and Medicaid and cut taxes for the wealthy.

    “I think in order for us to win across the country, in as many places as we can, we should focus more on the issues people are talking about where they live and work,” said Cecil, who supports Pressley personally, but whose PAC does not plan to endorse her.

    Pressley, for her part, said that she agrees with Capuano that Trump should be removed from office, although she has not made impeachment a major talking point in her campaign.

    “I’d cast that vote, but a vote is not enough,” she said in a statement. “As leaders we have to ask ourselves as we navigate this new and dangerous terrain together — how do we resist and progress at the same time?”

    Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.