Is Biden impeachment inquiry risky or smart for Republicans, politically? Strategists debate

"I do think people want to learn more," one operative said.

September 14, 2023, 12:39 PM

Republican strategists are watching how the newly announced impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden plays out, and they're wondering what kind of political history might repeat itself.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Tuesday accused Biden of lying about his knowledge of and involvement in son Hunter Biden's business dealings while he was vice president. McCarthy claimed GOP investigators had unearthed "serious and credible allegations" that "paint a picture of a culture of corruption."

The White House dismissed any suspicion of impropriety, arguing Republicans "have no evidence, so they're launching the next phase of their evidence-free goose chase simply to throw red meat to the right wing so they can continue baselessly attacking the president to play extreme politics," Biden spokesman Ian Sams said in a statement later Tuesday.

"I do think people want to learn more. But if there's no case to be made once there's more information, then there's no case to be made," a GOP operative working on down-ballot races and a presidential campaign told ABC News. Like others in this story, they spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid criticism of the campaigns they're working for.

"There is the potential for them [Republicans] to overplay their hand if they're not buttoned up and tightened up and let some of the yahoos in the House lead the messaging effort," the operative said.

Impeachments are historically rare, complicating larger conclusions about their political fallout, though observers have argued -- as in the case of Bill Clinton -- that they can wound a politician's character in the eyes of the public.

In modern times, only two previous presidents have actually been charged by the House of Representatives and none have been convicted in the Senate. But political experts who spoke for this story said such cases do appear to leave impressions on voters.

In 1998, House Republicans launched an impeachment probe into then-President Clinton revolving around his sexual relationship with Monical Lewinsky and a separate sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones.

Clinton ultimately settled with Jones but continued to deny her claim. The Senate, led by Democrats, acquitted him in early 1999.

In between, the 1998 midterm elections saw Clinton's Democratic Party gain seats in the House without losing seats in the Senate. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an architect of conservatives' return to power in Congress earlier in the decade, quickly resigned.

Some Republicans at the time and today assessed that voters viewed the impeachment probe as overreach, too politicized -- a risk the operatives who spoke with ABC News saw in the inquiry announced Tuesday.

PHOTO: Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to reporters outside of his office at the US Capitol Building on Sept. 12, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks to reporters outside of his office at the US Capitol Building on Sept. 12, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Another GOP strategist working on down-ballot races said they feared the probe into Biden could likewise endanger House Republicans who represent districts Biden won in 2020 and produce an exodus of more centrist lawmakers who aren't necessarily in electoral danger in 2024 but are tired of what they view as the House's intractable partisanship.

"The 18 Republicans who are in seats that Biden won, it's going to make their lives miserable," this person said.

"That stuff drives them bonkers," the strategist added of less endangered rank-and-file members. "At some point, this is just a really miserable job. If they don't see holding the majority as a likelihood, at some point you're gonna see those people start to bail."

Other Republicans, though, said they viewed the new impeachment inquiry as a boon, just as the 2021 investigation into former President Donald Trump after Jan. 6 may have been for Democrats.

Liberals that year launched an investigation of Trump after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol -- both with an impeachment inquiry in early 2021 and then a special committee in the House that, through a series of televised hearings in 2022, kept a spotlight on Trump and the riot for months, even as he denied all wrongdoing and was narrowly acquitted in the Senate.

Democrats ultimately defied expectations of a "red wave" in 2022 by minimizing their House losses and gaining a Senate seat, despite Biden's unpopularity.

Their success also appears to have been aided by the Supreme Court's revocation of constitutional abortion protections, with voters in some swing states saying in exit polling that abortion was a top issue.

"I think the benefit that impeachment [of Biden] will have is it will force the American public as we go into a general election cycle to reckon with an opinion they may not have solidified yet on the issue of Hunter Biden and foreign influence," said GOP strategist John Thomas. "I'm not sure that the American public yet has really rendered a solid opinion on it, and so it's gonna force that conversation to be had. I think that's probably a net positive for Republicans."

Democrats also impeached Trump in 2019 over what they said were efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Biden and his son in exchange for aid, but it's unclear exactly how much that effort impacted the 2020 election, when the elder Biden won the White House and Democrats took the Senate while losing seats in the House. Trump denied doing anything wrong in that case and was found not guilty by the Senate.

PHOTO: Hunter Biden departs federal court after a plea hearing on two misdemeanor charges of willfully failing to pay income taxes in Wilmington, Del., July 26, 2023.
Hunter Biden departs federal court after a plea hearing on two misdemeanor charges of willfully failing to pay income taxes in Wilmington, Del., July 26, 2023.
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, FILE

Strategists said there could be a third option: The impeachment process against Biden could have no electoral impact at all.

With Trump leading in GOP primary polls by a sprawling margin, a rematch against Biden in 2024 appears increasingly likely. And given both their high name recognition and decades in the public eye, it could take more than an impeachment inquiry to change any minds.

"I think that voters might be a bit desensitized to these things. One because Trump was impeached twice. Two, everything is the end of the world, and it's a new soap opera episode every day," said a third GOP consultant on down-ballot races. "This is likely going to be an election between Biden and Trump. And so, I think there's virtually not a voter who doesn't have an opinion about the two."

The person did warn, however, that while the investigation into President Biden by itself may not damage Republicans, emphasizing it over policy issues could turn off voters who have already decided whether or not allegations around Hunter Biden are impacting their vote.

Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., a member of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, seemed to touch on that on Sunday. "We can waste our time that are not important, or we can focus on issues that are. [T]here is not a strong connection at this point between the evidence on Hunter Biden and any evidence connecting the president," Buck said on MSNBC.

"Everybody thought Republicans were gonna have a great cycle, but we didn't provide any alternative. We just said, 'Biden bad, inflation bad' and never said what Republicans are going to do about it," the strategist said of the 2022 midterms. "We still need to do that extra step of, 'this is what it means if we're going to have a Republican in the White House and a Republican-controlled Senate.' And I don't know if there's a coherent message on that yet."