SANTA CLARITA — 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.
The Political Gamble
“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.
Risky Business for GOP
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 Unpredictability of an Impeachment Inquiry
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.