A California billionaire is bringing his campaign to impeach the president to Charlotte next week, though some of the Democrats he hopes to persuade call it a distraction.
Tom Steyer will tout his Need to Impeach campaign Tuesday night at the Fillmore. It's part of a nationwide tour for the former hedge fund manager and liberal activist, who has spent over $40 million on his effort to push the impeachment of President Donald Trump. He calls Trump "a clear and present danger to our nation."
But Democratic congressional candidates aren't jumping on Steyer's bandwagon.
"Dan's not interested in hypotheticals," said Aaron Simpson, a spokesman for Democrat Dan McCready, who's running in the 9th District. "Our focus is where it has always been, fighting for affordable health care, better public education, and bringing good-paying jobs to North Carolina."
In the 13th District, Democrat Kathy Manning said it's premature to talk about impeachment before special counsel Robert Mueller finishes his investigation.
"In the meantime my concern is that Congress is dysfunctional," she told the Observer. "They’re not getting things done. I don’t want people to get distracted by the notion of impeachment. I want them to come together to start getting things done for the people of this country."
McCready and Manning are running in the two North Carolina districts Democrats believe they're most likely to flip.
McCready faces fellow Charlottean Mark Harris, who upset three-term Rep. Robert Pittenger in the Republican primary in the district that stretches east from Charlotte to Bladen County. Manning is challenging freshman GOP Rep. Ted Budd in a district that runs from Mooresville to Greensboro.
Just last month, Steyer announced he plans to spend $1 million to mobilize young voters in their two districts. That's on top of $30 million he's spending on NextGen Rising, a campaign to energize millennial voters in more than two dozen key districts in 10 states.
Steyer is one of the Democrats' biggest donors. In addition to spending on the impeachment and millennial campaigns, he's given $16 million to Democratic candidates and party groups this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
This month the Republican National Committee accused him of pushing Democrats "to the extreme left . . . one donation at a time."
Steyer said the reluctance of some Democrats to join him in what he calls "the biggest issue in the United States" won't affect his support for candidates. Nearly 5.4 million people have signed his petition calling for Trump's impeachment.
"We’re not using this as a litmus test," he told the Observer. "We also know that the overwhelming number of Democrats believe the president should be impeached and somebody running for office ... should be willing to explain why or why not. If you're not for impeachment, why not?"
McCready and Manning aren't the only Democrats steering clear of impeachment talk.
Democrat Linda Coleman, running against GOP Rep. George Holding in the 2nd District, said, "There’s nothing more I'd like to see than for (Trump) to go." But, she said, "We've got issues affecting people's everyday lives (that) ought to be addressed first."
House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco has called it premature and a distraction. “Whether or not the president should be impeached is a matter that is being dealt with in the Justice Department,” she told reporters last month.
But in December, 59 Democrats — including Rep. Alma Adams of Charlotte — voted to start impeachment efforts. Pelosi and 125 other Democrats sided with Republicans to table the motion.
Democratic strategists say their candidates should be cautious about embracing the idea.
"The smart play for the party at large is not to fall into the trap that Republicans want us to, that we want to retake Congress so we can impeach the president," said Morgan Jackson of Raleigh. "How Democrats are winning across the country is by talking about what they'll do."
But Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state Republican Party, said candidates like McCready could find themselves in a bind. Each has to appeal to moderate, even conservative voters while energizing their Democratic base. A March survey by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling found that nationally 73 percent of Democrats support impeachment.
"McCready doesn't have to come out and say, 'Impeach the president'," Woodhouse said. "The fact is that people who are driving to get him elected expect him to do that. He's going to get crossways with voters … or with grass-roots supporters."
How activists see it
Charlotte's Aisha Dew, first vice chair of the state Democratic Party and former state director for Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, said, "There are are a lot of people who do want Donald Trump impeached and expect their candidates to support that."
But she said activists will first try to get Democrats elected whether they support impeachment or not. "The first option is to get them in and then continue the conversation," she said.
Rep. John Autry of Charlotte, one of the most liberal Democrats in the General Assembly, said impeachment isn't high on the list of priorities he'll take to the voting booth. "Probably the next to last thing I would think about when casting my vote for Congress would be whether not they would be pushing for impeachment," he said.
Charlotte's Joel Segal, who co-chairs the Alliance of Moral Progressive Democrats, considers Steyer a "hero" and "patriot." He applauds him for raising awareness of the impeachment issue but believes his money could be better spent.
"What Tom Steyer should do is put his money into candidates who could possibly win," he said. "I would use the money to get progressive candidates elected and help organizations get the vote out."