A recent poll found that 70% of Americans are closely watching the ongoing impeachment hearings. I am one of those Americans, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise since I work in politics. Whether it’s listening to the proceedings on my phone while commuting or watching the livestream on my office television while working, I’ve followed along with the mundane recitation of facts, the expected pageantry by lawmakers, and the shocking revelations heard live for the first time. I’ve been completely captivated for two weeks — addicted to the highs and lows and anxious to know the outcome.
With each hearing, nothing makes my hackles rise quite like the camera settling on Rep. Chris Stewart as he begins his five minutes of questioning the witnesses. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with his appearance. The impetus for my sudden burst of anger is the realization at that moment that the next five minutes will consist of an unqualified defense of the President, whether it’s by denigrating the witness, regurgitating discredited talking points, casting blame elsewhere, or simply stating his opinion that the President did nothing wrong.
He has lamented the lack of fairness shown to the President, used a made-up definition of the crime of extortion, discounted a servicemember’s desire to be addressed by his rank, questioned a witness’s feelings of intimidation, claimed the hearings are a coup d’etat by House Democrats, and concluded that even if the accusations are true, Trump did nothing wrong. In short, whether on social media, Fox News, or committee dias, Stewart has become the President’s most stalwart defender.
Stewart did not assume the position as Trump’s “Chief Sycophant” overnight. As many people like to point out, Stewart compared Trump to Italian dictator Mussolini prior to the 2016 election. He said that he “can’t imagine what someone is thinking” if they are Trump supporters and that “Trump does not represent Republican ideals.” But after Trump won the election, those criticisms faded to the background behind support for the administration’s policies and attacks on the legitimacy of the Mueller probe and results.
Even if I don’t support the vast majority of the administration’s policies, I understand why a Republican representative would support many of this Republican president’s policies. What I don’t understand is why Stewart would speak up in support of the Muslim travel ban or the President’s response to the Saudi killing of Khashoggi. You can see a list of his defenses of Trump in a blog post I wrote last year.
What caused this shift in attitude? Is it solely based on the aligned support of the administration’s policies? Was it the pressure of partisan politics and the GOP’s blind allegiance to its new leader? Or was it because Stewart’s loyalty allowed him to brag about personal phone calls from Trump and visits to the White House? We may never know the cause. But we might have a sense of the effects.
In April of 2017, at the beginning of Trump’s administration, 45% of Stewart’s constituents had a favorable view of their representative, with only 29% having an unfavorable view. A year earlier, months before the 2016 election, Stewart was in a similar position, with 49% of constituents approving of his job performance and only 17% disapproving. Now, a poll commissioned by Utah Policy and Y2 Analytics last month shows that Stewart is underwater in his approval ratings, with only 37% of his constituents expressing approval of his job performance, with 42% showing disapproval.
Will Stewart’s performance during the impeachment hearings further extend this trend? Will declining approval ratings translate into decreased chances of winning re-election in 2020? Perhaps so — Stewart won the 2018 election by only 17.% after having won by 27% to 28% in his previous three elections.
Stewart’s declining approval ratings occurring at the same time as his increasing number of public defenses of the president could be purely coincidental. I believe that historically, not many of Stewart’s constituents were aware of who he was or what he believed, as evidenced by his poor name ID among voters. As he began showing up more often in the news, it was almost always in connection with defending an immensely unpopular president.
With today’s conclusion of the public impeachment hearings, we all must now wait to see whether articles of impeachment will be introduced, how the House will vote, and if the Senate will convict. These three decision points could have huge impacts on next year’s election. Will they have a huge impact on Stewart’s election? As a voter in UT-02, I can’t wait to see the results.