SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) — Bill Mehlem recalls a time when his politics generally aligned with conservatives, enthusiastically backing Republicans such as John McCain during his 2008 presidential campaign.
But the stay-at-home dad has grown dismayed with the tempestuous GOP molded by former President Donald Trump, who is now seeking a return to the White House. And the threat of a Republican-led impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden’s family finances and the churning U.S. House probes of his son, Hunter Biden, have left Mehlem indignant, angry and remembering why he’s a political independent.
“It’s all about revenge politics to keep Trump’s base” engaged for the 2024 elections, Mehlem said. “It’s all about nothing.”
That sentiment reflects the gamble House Republicans are making as they consider moving forward with an impeachment inquiry against Biden. The talk delights some Republicans who are eager for retribution following several indictments of Trump in recent months, including two federal cases that charge him with hoarding classified documents and working to overturn the 2020 election. But for many of those outside of the die-hard GOP base, the impeachment chatter is a turn off.
It’s especially risky for the party in California, where five House Republicans occupy Democratic-leaning districts that Biden won in 2020. Those districts alone could help Democrats retake the House majority next year.
In one crucial battleground — sprawling through suburbs and high desert north of Los Angeles — GOP Rep. Mike Garcia will need to overcome a nearly 13-point Democratic registration advantage to claim a fourth term and remain the sole Republican House member anchored in heavily Democratic Los Angeles County. In suburban Santa Clarita, at the heart of Garcia’s district, Mehlem said he saw no chance he would support Garcia — in part because the congressman joined House Republicans who attempted to reject electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania after the 2020 presidential election.
But in a Congress often stalemated by partisan division, he has his doubts about Democrats, too.
“One party is crazy,” he said, referring to Republicans, “and one party is slightly less crazy.”
The political fallout of an impeachment inquiry could prove unpredictable. Speaker Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican who is well aware of his party’s challenges in California, has floated the idea. But he and other Republican leaders haven’t signaled a timeline for action. The election season could be colored by other issues, including worries over inflation and rising gas prices. And previous presidents have overcome the headwinds from impeachment. Bill Clinton’s popularity improved after he was impeached while Trump earned more votes after his first impeachment.
Still, in swing districts that could determine House control, even a small shift of votes could be decisive. Garcia held his seat by 333 votes in 2020. In California’s Central Valley, Republican Rep. John Duarte captured his seat last year with a 564-vote win.
Outside a Santa Clarita library on a crystalline summer afternoon, the investigations were applauded by Republican voter Diane Hamilton, who works in software sales. She said she has long been suspicious of Hunter Biden’s financial and business dealings. In 2020, the contents of a laptop that he’d left at a Delaware repair shop and never retrieved made their way to Republicans and were publicly leaked, revealing messages about his work and personal life.
Democrats, she said, had tried to push questions about the laptop “under the rug.”
Despite its reputation as a Democratic stronghold, a string of California House districts has proved volatile in recent elections, highlighting their importance to both parties as they seek the majority. Democrats seized seven seats from Republicans in 2018, then Republicans reclaimed four from Democrats in 2020.
In the 2022 elections, California Republicans gained one seat, from 11 to 12, while Democrats dropped to 40 seats from 42, after California lost a House seat in reapportionment after the 2020 census. Overall, the state dropped to 52 districts from 53.
With the chamber divided 222-212, with one vacancy, only a handful of seats separate the two parties.
In Santa Clarita, Democrat Bonnie Untaran said the House should be debating skyrocketing rents and home prices and lowering the cost of living, not focusing on the Bidens.
“It’s starting to get unrelatable to our daily life,” she said.
Untaran said she will consider voting for the Republican Garcia — a former Navy combat pilot and the son of a Mexican immigrant father — providing he talks about local issues.
The importance of pocketbook issues was echoed by former Republican congressman Doug Ose, who said GOP candidates need to stick to what families talk about at kitchen tables.
When Republicans carried state swing districts in 2022, “they were not talking about the Hunter Biden investigation or a Joe Biden impeachment. They were talking about bread-and-butter issues, and that’s where I think the voters are,” said Ose, who represented a Sacramento-area district.
“Why would you go talk about something else?” he asked.
Indeed, Republican candidates have had success in state swing districts in recent years by making elections a referendum on California itself under progressive Democratic rule, pointing to pervasive homelessness in major cities, vexing crime rates and wallet-sapping taxes.
In the middle of a California summer, with voters distracted by barbecues and baseball games, it’s unclear how many people are following the day-to-day scrum on Capitol Hill, although Congress is now in recess for the month.
Independent voter Hamilton Grier, a father of two, said he intentionally avoids political news so he won’t be distracted from his marketing job. He had “no idea” what the Hunter Biden investigations were about.
Grier worries about inflation, and the world to come for his kids, a 1-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old boy. He expects to shift his attention to politics when the elections get closer.
“I’m scared for them,” he said. “I don’t know what the future will be like.”
In recent posts on X, formerly known as Twitter, Garcia writes about rising gas prices, inflation, a porous border with Mexico and climbing mortgage rates — without mentioning Hunter Biden.
Veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said GOP House candidates already are facing two challenges in heavily Democratic California: Trump, if he becomes the nominee, is widely unpopular in the state outside his conservative base, and suburban woman are likely to see an elevated turnout, driven by concern over abortion rights after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling.
With the focus on the Bidens, McCarthy “has strategically taken the position that he is going to stoke up the base in a lot of the rural, red-state areas,” Carrick said.
But California isn’t Texas or Utah, where conservative politics tend to dominate.
“The current McCarthy strategy doesn’t really account for that,” Carrick said, adding that House control will likely turn on swing districts in states like California and New York.
But there is also a risk for Democrats, depending on what the investigations turn up. And voters say Republicans like Garcia can help themselves by focusing on things that matter back home.
Democrat Laura Stotler, a retired government employee, said she plans to vote for Garcia, based on his attention to district issues. She doesn’t always agree with his votes, but she credits him with showing up at events she has attended, and his office responded when she made an inquiry about pending legislation honoring women telephone operators who served during World War I.
As for Washington news, she avoids it. She said she doesn’t need the stress.
“I can’t keep track of who is getting indicted for what,” she said. “I’m just so tired of it.”
Michael R. Blood, The Associated Press