WASHINGTON — A strategy is emerging among Republican leaders on how to energize conservatives and moderate voters before the November elections: warn that Democrats will immediately move to impeach President Trump if they capture the House.
What began last year as blaring political hyperbole on the right — the stuff of bold-lettered direct-mail fund-raising pitches from little-known groups warning of a looming American “coup” — is steadily drifting into the main currents of the 2018 message for Republicans.
The appeals have become a surefire way for candidates to raise small contributions from grass-roots conservatives who are devoted to Trump, veteran Republican fund-raisers say. But party strategists also believe that floating the possibility of impeachment can also act as a sort of scared-straight motivational tool for turnout.
Last week, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas used his reelection kickoff rally to introduce a video featuring a faux news anchor reading would-be headlines were conservatives not to vote in November.
“Senate Majority Leader Schumer announced the impeachment trial of President Trump,” one of the anchors says.
And when Representative Steve Stivers of Ohio, chairman of the House Republican campaign organization, convened about two dozen party strategists in February for a private dinner at a French bistro here, the attendees were surprised when he addressed an issue not included in his formal PowerPoint presentation: the threat of impeachment against Trump, which he said fired up the party base.
Then there is the most prominent Republican to have started invoking the specter of a Democratic-controlled House impeaching Trump: the president himself.
In just the last month, he has used three separate speeches to warn that Representative Maxine Waters, a veteran California Democrat he has casually insulted as a “low-IQ individual,” aims to impeach him.
Advisers to the president say they have made clear to him that Republican control of the House is tenuous, and some have encouraged him to more aggressively lay out the stakes for the midterm elections, including who exactly would be in charge of key committees should Democrats retake the chamber.
“Everybody has told him that,” Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, said about the prospect of a Democratic takeover of the House. “The threat of impeachment is something that unifies everybody in the party, even if you’re not a big Trump supporter.”
Democrats are divided on how to respond to the charge.
Many top officials in the capital fear it is a political trap that would distract from their core message and possibly even boomerang to harm them in November.
But other more progressive figures see impeachment as a rallying cry of their own to galvanize the left’s anti-Trump base.
“I’ve been urging members to refrain from discussing impeachment,” said Representative Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, adding: “I think we should let these investigations conclude and see what evidence is found.”
The mere thought of impeachment could energize Trump supporters who may otherwise be disinclined to vote in the midterm elections without him on the ballot, supporters of the strategy say.
“I can’t even imagine the Democrats would go there,” said Mark Lundberg, former chairman of the Sioux County Republican committee in Iowa. “Impeachment for what? For being rude to them? That would be so outrageous.”
But the fact that Republicans are talking in early spring about running on an impeachment threat reveals the depth of their challenge going into this fall’s election. The first midterm campaign of a new administration is typically difficult for the president’s party.
But Trump has compounded the Republicans’ difficulties by generating an unending stream of made-for-TV controversies that overshadow their policy achievements and the health of the economy.
There are voices in the Republican Party who believe that it is too soon to sound the alarm, and that doing so will come off as overly panicked. Indeed, what is striking about the politics of impeachment is that both parties are divided over how to navigate the issue in the midterm campaign.
Polls show most voters are not supportive of impeachment at the moment, but if Trump were to fire the White House special counsel, Robert Mueller, the country would become about evenly divided on the question.
In January, 66 House Democrats, over a third of the caucus, voted to begin impeachment proceedings. That was eight more than the total number who voted for a similar measure in the House a month earlier.
“I think he’s committed impeachable offenses,” said Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee. He said waiting for the special counsel is risky because Mueller’s inquiry may never “see the light of day.”
The Democratic leadership, though, has sought to tamp down these impulses. They believe Republicans are setting a trap and are irritated that billionaire donor Tom Steyer, who wants to host a series of primary debates this year, is trumpeting the issue.
These Democrats argue that the party needs to focus on a substantive agenda and assure voters that they will exercise sober and reasonable oversight of Trump.