Impeachment Threatens Iowa Democratic Hopefuls
Nancy Pelosi insisted for months her party “can walk and chew gum at the same time,” yet that doesn’t make the electoral implications of impeachment any less frustrating for Senate Democrats.
The House speaker announced Friday that she would finally send articles of impeachment to the upper chamber next week, ending a standoff between the House and the Senate and beginning the trial of President Donald J. Trump. It is historic. It is also a potential scheduling headache.
Six candidates are scheduled to appear on a debate stage in Des Moines, Iowa, on Tuesday. Three of them have a constitutional duty to serve as jurors in any impeachment trial, meaning that Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts could find themselves stranded on Capitol Hill while their competitors remain on the campaign trail. (Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey did not qualify for Tuesday's debate.)
This was always a possibility, and impeachment developments did not catch Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez off guard.
“Democrats and our senators can walk and chew gum,” Perez said, leaning into Pelosi's cliché during a Tuesday interview on MSNBC. “Obviously, if there’s a trial on the 14th, then we’ll move the debate. If there’s not, then we’re going to have the debate. At the moment, all systems are go and so we’re going to move forward.”
A senior DNC official echoed Perez after the news broke Friday. “I don’t think they’ll cancel it outright,” the official predicted. If there is a conflict, “I think they’ll reschedule.”
Even if the party does reschedule the debate, impeachment will still leave a crater in the 2020 primary landscape. Fulfilling this constitutional obligation takes time, a scarce commodity for candidates seeking to solidify their standings and others still gasping for life. According to the RealClearPolitics average, Sanders enjoys a slim lead in Iowa with 22%, while Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden -- who don’t have any Senate obligations -- follow closely behind within the margin of error. Warren has slid to fourth place at 15.3% and is trying to recapture some momentum, while Klobuchar, who has crept up to 7%, is still hoping to catch fire in the contest's final days.
But electoral sparks will be hard to come by in the frozen Midwest while sitting silent in the Senate, a reality that Warren admitted recently in an interview with Politico. “Of course, it matters," she said. "We just did a three-and-a-half-hour selfie line. Don't tell me it doesn't matter to do face-to-face."
“People are a little frustrated from the political side, and I’ve certainly heard some candidates grumble about it privately just because the longer this impeachment thing goes on the less traction that they’re going to be able to get,” the DNC source said while declining to name names.
The frustration isn’t personal so far, and each of the presidential hopefuls has vocally supported Pelosi and House Democrats since they voted on December 18th to impeach the president.
By forcing Majority Leader Mitch McConnell into a debate over Senate procedure, the DNC official said that Pelosi “has strengthened the hand of Democrats going into the impeachment trial.” But that debate took time off the clock, the official explained -- “it’s clear that the last thing on her mind was the needs of the party’s electoral politics."
This is the correct prioritization, according to DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa, and it’s one that the field shares.
“Every senator took an oath of office to uphold the constitution. They take their duty as jurors seriously, as they have said publicly,” Hinojosa told RCP. “They understand this is their number one responsibility and that politics can wait.”
“The DNC will proceed with next week's debate and will reevaluate if a conflict occurs,” she added.
Candidates could soon find themselves at the mercy of McConnell, who controls the Senate calendar. Although he has promised the White House a speedy acquittal, some Republicans are privately giddy at the prospect of turning impeachment into a headache for the Democrats. McConnell could let the process drag along, creating scheduling nightmares for candidates trying to split their time between the U.S. Capitol and the early-state hustings.
The calendar was still in flux late Friday afternoon, but longtime politicos insisted that cancelling the debate is unlikely. Erik Smith, founder of Blue Engine Media, told RCP that rescheduling would also be difficult “because of all the contractual commitments.” CNN and the Des Moines Register, for instance, will sponsor the event on Tuesday and advertising spots have already been sold.
A senior adviser for both of President Obama’s presidential campaigns, Smith downplayed any scheduling changes: “You can just get back on a plane to Iowa very easily.”
A bigger problem would have been a longer delay, he said. “If Pelosi held onto the articles of impeachment to work around the Democratic presidential primary timing, …we would be subject to even greater criticism. [Impeachment] is bigger than politics.”
- Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.