It is increasingly likely that President Trump’s impeachment trial will act as a presidential campaign obstacle for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and other members of the Senate who are vying for the White House.
That’s because in the crucial days leading up to the first caucuses and primaries, Warren and her colleagues will likely be sitting as jurors on Capitol Hill — instead of handshaking, taking selfies and making their case to voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.
For Warren, the timing couldn’t be worse. After rising to front-runner status early in the campaign, she’s seen her polling and fundraising numbers sink in recent weeks. Meanwhile, her opponents have gained momentum.
“She needs things to go smoothly, and right and well for her right now,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, who has worked on a number of presidential campaigns.
“And an impeachment trial with [this] many uncontrollable variables — including time away at the campaign trail … comes at an important time, where she doesn’t really have as much margin of error as she had, say, four to six months ago,” McMahon said.
On the campaign trail, Warren has repeatedly said she takes her duties as a potential impeachment juror seriously.
“There are some things that are more important than politics, and if we have an impeachment proceeding going on, I will be there,” Warren said during a campaign stop in Rochester, N.H.
But “being there” — for Warren, as well as for her Senate colleagues Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar — will mean being there, a lot.
Members of the Senate are expected to be called six days a week for the duration of the trial. Unlike the impeachment proceedings in the House, in which lawmakers questioned witnesses in sometimes fiery exchanges, the senators at the impeachment trial will sit silently during the proceedings. And how long it will last remains uncertain.
What is clear is the trial will give an advantage to candidates who are not senators, including front-runners Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg.
“I’m sure they are going to take full advantage of it,” McMahon said. “And they’ll be in Iowa, and New Hampshire and South Carolina — perhaps for days and weeks that their Senate colleagues on the campaign can’t match.”
Adrienne Elrod, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said this timing is critical — particularly if the trial carries into February.
“It’s one thing to take yourself off the campaign trail for a couple weeks before the first caucus date,” Elrod said. “But it’s a totally different ballgame to be off the campaign trail during the most crucial month in the Democratic primaries.”
That’s because the early primaries are about more than winning. They are about momentum.
Matt Bennett, a veteran Democratic strategist who worked on the campaigns of Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton, said the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire are unique. There’s a big expectation that voters in those states will get to speak to candidates personally.
“You hear people say, without any irony, ‘I’ll decide after I talk to them a couple more times,’ ” Bennett said. “That’s just not how people in California are going to decide who they are going to vote for.”
Simply spending a lot of time in those early states may not be enough.
That is why Elizabeth Warren has been fundraising to ensure she has enough money to advertise heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire. And that’s also why Warren is tapping surrogates to stump for her while she’s back in Washington.
Warren has tapped people like Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who is popular among the progressives Warren is courting, Warren’s husband Bruce Mann and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who threw his support behind Warren when he ended his own presidential bid earlier this month.
At a Warren rally in New York last week, soon after Castro endorsed her, he described his own experience pressing the flesh in the early states.
“So many times when we would get out there … I’d be having a conversation with somebody,” Castro said. “And they’d be nodding their head — in Des Moines, or in Davenport, or somewhere in Iowa, or in Manchester, N.H. And I thought I had them sold on my candidacy. They’d say, ‘You know, I really, really like you, and I love what you’re talking about. But, nah, my first choice is Elizabeth Warren.’”
Back in Washington, Warren won’t have to stay mute when she’s outside of her juror chair, Elrod said.
“You know, there is political upside. Because all of these senators who get to participate in the impeachment trial, of course they won’t be asking questions. But, they will have opportunities throughout the day — and of course throughout the evening — to get themselves on national television, to talk to reporters, to really play up this act that they are defending American democracy as we know it,” Elrod said.
But it’s still not the same as being on the stump, Bennet says.
“Because somebody like Warren is good at doing these retail events, anything keeping her from doing them is harmful,” Bennett said.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.