How One Red State Talks About Impeachment

1A Across America producer Amanda Williams drove from Wichita to Kansas City. On the way, she spoke with Kansans across the political spectrum about the impeachment inquiry.

By Amanda Williams

Nationwide support for impeaching President Trump is growing by the day, polling indicates, as more information is shared about the nature and motives behind his request for Ukraine to investigate a political rival.

In Kansas — a state Trump won by 21 points — you’ll likely hear a different story.

“It’s all a joke,” said rancher Jerry Lehmann over coffee in Strong City, Kan. “I’d almost call it a terrorist attack on the office of the president.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) opened an impeachment inquiry on Sept. 24 after evidence surfaced that President Trump asked the president of Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joseph Biden, a potential Democratic opponent in the 2020 election. The president’s request could be a violation of several federal laws. President Trump has repeatedly insisted he did nothing wrong in his communication with Ukraine.

While overall support for impeaching President Trump sits just under 50 percent, that changes drastically when considering party affiliation. Nearly 85 percent of Democrats are in favor, while only 12 percent of Republicans are.

And Kansas leans strongly Republican.

Lehmann travels the Midwest as a livestock auctioneer. His ranch sits about a half-hour north of Kansas City in Missouri, which also went for Trump in 2016.

“I think this entire process is based on just trying to find a way to get rid of Donald Trump because the other team just doesn’t like him at all,” Lehmann said.

He’s not alone.

“I think a lot of people are frustrated because they see this as a politically motivated thing,” said Shannon Golden. She’s the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, and she’s been talking with Republicans across the state.

“I think our Kansas voters really want their legislators and elected [officials] to focus on issues that matter to them, and impeachment is just not something I see supported by Kansans,” she said.

Despite winning Kansas with such a wide point margin, the president’s approval rating in the state has fallen since taking office. According to Morning Consult polling, he peaked in March 2017 at 59 percent, but is now at 50 percent. This is still about 10 points higher than his national average.

Democrats, however, see things differently. To them, the inquiry is energizing.

Brandon Johnson, a Wichita City Council member and vice-chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, said it’s a “step in the right direction.”

Wichita City Council Member Brandon Johnson. Amanda Williams/1A.

“I do think the party’s energized just because there’s a sentiment that something’s there,” Johnson said. “The more he obstructs, the more it makes him look guilty, whereas if you didn’t have anything to hide then you would go testify — you would really prove your innocence.”

He said he was frustrated Pelosi hadn’t started an inquiry earlier, but now understands why she resisted for so long.

“You need some hard evidence,” Johnson said. “Impeachment is serious and even if we think that the president’s not the best person or terrible things are happening, impeachment is a big deal.”

Cheryl Griffin and Marilyn Phipps, both retirees in Emporia, Kan., also think there needs to be hard evidence for impeachment — but they haven’t seen any yet. Griffin said she thinks Democrats are scheming to get Trump out of office.

Emporia Resident Marilyn Phipps. Amanda Williams/1A.

“I think if there is 100 percent positive proof, then go through [with impeachment],” Phipps said. “Stop this chaos. If you’ve got the full proof, show it to us.”

Democrats point to the public complaint by a CIA whistleblower and the White House memo describing the July 25 conversation between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Both documents have become central to the impeachment inquiry. The president has pushed back on the whistleblower’s account, calling the complaint “fake” and “another Witch Hunt.”

Emporia Resident Cheryl Griffin. Amanda Williams/1A.

Griffin said she doesn’t trust the majority of mainstream media, but that it’s each individual’s responsibility to watch liberal and conservative news sources and come to a conclusion. She hasn’t read either document but plans to.

“It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out the media is totally anti-Trump because they’re not objective anymore,” Griffin said. “I don’t trust a thing they have to say because they have a slant. We watch Fox News but they’re the same way.”

Johnson is concerned that the president’s frequent attacks on the media, referring to stories he dislikes as “fake news,” means people will question any facts that are made public.

Phipps, an independent, didn’t favor the president in 2016. But Griffin voted for Trump in 2016 and said she probably will again in 2020. Griffin said for her, there’s a difference between Donald Trump the person and Donald Trump the president.

“I think his personality is very strong and he’s just willing to do battle, and that’s why a lot of America loves him, because he’s just real,” Griffin said. “We may not appreciate him being our neighbor, but being the president … as a person, as a man, he’s just not my thing. But as a president, as a businessman running the county — I do believe your integrity matters. I believe he does have the integrity to run this country.”

Golden, with the Kansas Republican Party, said in the long run, the inquiry will end up hurting Democrats politically, especially in the swing districts like Kansas’ Third, which sits south of Kansas City. That seat’s current representative, Democrat Sharice Davids, became the first openly gay Native American elected to Congress in 2018 after defeating the incumbent Republican.

Davids supports the inquiry, a move Golden thinks will cost her.

“We’re seeing a lot of these Democrats in swing districts really start to feel the pushback nationwide,” Golden said. “Supporting impeachment is going to hurt [Davids].”

For Johnson, with the Kansas Democratic Party, that cost would be worth it because “it’s the right thing to do.”

For many Kansans, like Cottonwood Falls rancher John Spinden, they don’t think the inquiry will change anything.

Cottonwood Falls Rancher John Spinden. Amanda Williams/1A.

“Do I think it’s all politics? Yeah, I suppose,” Spinden said. “They won’t get him impeached, and he’ll be the next president in 2020.”

1A Across America is a collaboration with six public radio stations funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.

1A is the midday news show from @WAMU885 and @NPR. Find the podcast at npr.org/1a.

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