Impeachment poised to pull top 2020 contenders from campaign trail

Presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar pledges that “it’s my constitutional duty. I’ll be there.”

The “there” the Minnesota Democrat is talking about is the impending Senate impeachment trial of President Trump.


With the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives poised to vote to impeach the president later this month or in early January, the action would then move to the GOP-controlled Senate. And a trial – where all 100 senators would serve as the jury – could come just weeks before the Iowa caucuses (Feb. 3) and the New Hampshire primary (Feb. 11), the first two states to hold contests in the presidential nominating calendar.

That trial would effectively sideline from the campaign trail a total of six contenders: Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Klobuchar.

And their absence could particularly give a boost to two top-tier contenders not tied to a Senate trial – South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden -- as both Iowa and New Hampshire place an extra emphasis on person-to-person retail-style politics.

“Early state voters place a premium on the opportunity to kick the tires on every single candidate running for president again and again," said Wayne Lesperance, a veteran New Hampshire-based political scientist and vice president of academic affairs for New England College. "Candidates out of state for a prolonged period because of their senatorial duties will concede critical time just before the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.”


Buttigieg has seen his poll numbers in both Iowa and New Hampshire surge in recent weeks, boosting him to top-tier status in both states. And while many of his rivals will likely be tied down in the nation’s capital, Buttigieg’s tenure as mayor comes to a close at the end of the year, further freeing him up to campaign full time in the early voting states starting in January.

Biden may benefit from this dynamic as well. The former vice president – once the unrivaled front-runner in the race – now faces intense competition. He launched a post-Thanksgiving week-long bus tour in Iowa. And he returns to New Hampshire at the conclusion of that bus tour.

While Biden spotlights his decades of Washington experience as he runs for the White House, Buttigieg emphasizes that he’s an outside-the-Beltway candidate. And having six of his rivals tied down on Capital Hill dealing with a nasty partisan fight over impeachment will only further the contrast Buttigieg’s trying to make.

The last president to face a Senate impeachment trial was Bill Clinton. His trial – which started in Dec. 1998 -- lasted five weeks. And under Senate rules, the chamber is required to be in session six days a week for the length of the proceedings.

“It’s going to present a challenge for senators also campaigning for president,” Harris said last month at a forum in California. “There’s no question about that.”

But it’s unlikely that any of the senators will skip out on parts of the trial to hit the campaign trail.

“This is a constitutional responsibility. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, and so did everyone who is in the United States Congress,” Warren told reporters recently while campaigning in New Hampshire.

Klobuchar said she’ll look to her family and advisers to represent her.

“My husband’s a great campaigner. My daughter is as well,” she told reporters in New Hampshire a week ago. “I’ve got surrogates all over the place. And they’ll have to be speaking if I can’t be there.”


Lesperance noted that while the senators face a “difficult challenge of fulfilling their obligations in the impeachment trial while also remaining present on the campaign trail, for the rest of the field, this is an opportunity.”

Still, one veteran Democratic strategist isn’t buying the conventional wisdom.

“The senators will be in Washington D.C. during a critical time leading up to the caucuses, but I think people are forgetting that the political center of gravity will be in Washington D.C. during an impeachment trial and the senators running for president are going to be on cable news every evening after the trial ends, during prime time, talking about their take on what happened, on what’s going to be the hottest news story of the decade,” said Zac Petkanas, the director of rapid response for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“At the same time their TV ads are going to be running in Iowa and on their one day off, they’ll be making the most of it in the state,” added Petkanas.