Looming Impeachment Trial Adds Urgency To Senators' Campaign Push

Jan 20, 2020
Originally published on January 21, 2020 1:06 pm

How confident are Iowa Democrats in their choices, now two weeks out from the caucuses?

The response Renee Kleinpeter gave NPR when asked which candidates she has narrowed her choice down to could sum it up: four seconds of laughter.

"I'll go with anybody who could beat [President] Trump," she said after laughing. "I wish somebody could tell me."

Lacking any reliable electoral crystal balls, Iowans are instead keeping their options open. The most recent Iowa Poll, out earlier this month, showed that more than half of likely Democratic caucusgoers were either undecided, or could still change their top choice before Feb. 3.

Now, in the midst of all that fluidity, the four U.S. senators still in the race will be disappearing from the campaign trail. Starting Tuesday, Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Michael Bennet will sit on the Senate floor six days a week as impeachment jurors.

The looming trial — and the uncertainty it adds to the final days before the first primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire — added some urgency to this weekend's campaigning. Snowstorms in both states did too.

"Thank you for understanding that I'm not going to be able to be here every day, and so you show up on this snowy day," Klobuchar told a crowd in Coralville, Iowa.

Like the three other senator-candidates, Klobuchar insists she's not particularly worried about missing campaign events and is stressing her constitutional obligations as a juror.

And, she quipped to the crowd, "I'm a mom and I can balance things really well."

Her campaign is also planning remote events over Skype, along with deploying family members and surrogates to meet with potential supporters. And seeing the trial looming, Klobuchar sped up her schedule for visiting every one of Iowa's 99 counties.

"I'm just cramming everything I can do into every waking hour," she said.

Still, some supporters aren't quite as sanguine about how the trial could affect Klobuchar's chances. (She's currently polling in fifth in Iowa.) "To not be able to get out there and meet more people ... I can't see how that wouldn't hurt somewhat," said Tim Behlke, moments after signing a commit-to-caucus card.

Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks during a town hall on Sunday in Des Moines, Iowa.
Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Of course, impeachment won't completely end campaigning for the senators in the race. Sanders has already announced a rally this Wednesday night in Iowa. He'll fly there after the trial has wrapped for the day and be back in Washington, D.C., the next morning.

And the proceedings won't have any effect on the other hallmarks of campaigns in the closing days of a race: volunteers and organizers knocking on doors and calling and texting potential caucusgoers; and ads on television, radio and online.

Still, the weekend of campaigning carried a whiff of premature nostalgia for some of the candidates who have spent most of the past year in Iowa.

"I'll miss all the questions I get from people, the unfiltered questions, folks who get to stand up and say, 'This is what matters to me. Talk to me about it,' " Warren told reporters after a Sunday rally in Des Moines.

"I truly have loved this part of the campaign, and I hope I'll be able to come more to Iowa," she said, "because the good people of Iowa have really taught me core parts of democracy."

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The four senators running for president will be otherwise occupied for the next few weeks.


BERNIE SANDERS: Now, all of you are aware that my schedule has kind of changed a bit.

KING: That's Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire over the weekend. He and the other senators will be stuck in Washington six days a week because they are serving as jurors in the impeachment trial of President Trump. They won't be able to campaign, so what are they going to do? NPR's Scott Detrow has some answers.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Every four years, the snow and weather add an extra challenge to those final weeks of campaigning in Iowa.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Good to see you all. Boy, I know I'm here with the brave, the tough, the ones who take on the snow. So it is great...

DETROW: Snow and ice blanketed Iowa and, later, New Hampshire this weekend. But Elizabeth Warren and the other senators running for president pressed forward, not knowing when they'll be back. Most people at events this weekend said they don't think it will be a problem that the candidates they're backing are tied up with impeachment. Before that town hall in Newton, Warren supporter Lynn Muhs pointed out the campaign's been going on for a year.

LYNN MUHS: If you haven't seen them now, you know, it's kind of crazy. So I think that the fact that they're not going to be out doing this is fine. They're back in Washington doing what we need them to do.

DETROW: The candidates are following this lead, or at least that's what they say. They're talking up their constitutional duty. And Amy Klobuchar told the crowd in Coralville that she's not especially worried.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: I'm a mom, and I can balance things really well.

DETROW: Bernie Sanders was in New Hampshire this weekend; so was Michael Bennet. Sanders has already scheduled a Wednesday night rally in Iowa. He'll fly to the state after the day's trial session and then back to Washington the next morning. Klobuchar's campaign doesn't have as much money as Sanders', so she's going to have to be a bit more creative.

KLOBUCHAR: Yeah, I guess I'll have to do it over Skype. We will find a way.

DETROW: She and the other senators will all rely heavily on surrogates, too. It's been clear for months that this scheduling conflict was coming, so Klobuchar sped up her schedule for hitting every single Iowa county.

KLOBUCHAR: Part of this is I'm just cramming everything I can do into every waking hour, which is why, by the way, in December, we did those 27 counties in, like, 3 1/2 days. Two of the days, we did 10 counties each...

DETROW: Especially among the Democratic base, no one seems to be holding the impeachment commitments against the senators, but there still could be a cost, especially for Klobuchar, who's trying to gain ground. Just after signing a card committing to caucus for Klobuchar, Tim Behlke said he was worried.

TIM BEHLKE: To not be able to get out there and meet more people to support her views and causes, I can't see how that wouldn't hurt someone.

DETROW: Like so many Democrats, Behlke is deciding based on who he thinks could beat Trump in the Electoral College. But so many Democrats are so worried about a second Trump term that they're hesitating to commit to a candidate. Polls show a lot of people in Iowa could still change their mind and are still looking to be convinced in the final days. The mood is best summed up by this exchange with Renee Kleinpeter, who was waiting to see Warren in Newton.

Who's it down to for you?


DETROW: She just wants some reassurance.

KLEINPETER: I'll go with anybody who can beat Trump. I wish somebody would tell me. (Laughter).

DETROW: But in between now and caucus night, the senators in the race won't have as many chances to make that argument for themselves in person. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Des Moines.