Will Trump’s Impeachment Trial Be the End of the Road for Democratic Senators in the 2020 Race?

December 9, 2019, 7:00 PM UTC

Come January, the five senators still in the running for the Democratic nomination for president likely won’t be campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire—they’ll be in Washington, D.C., serving as a jury in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. They, and Trump, will be entering unprecedented territory: juggling an impeachment trial while campaigning for president.

After the House of Representatives votes on articles of impeachment, the issue will head to the Senate, where all 100 senators will hear the case and eventually vote on whether to remove Trump from office. A two-thirds vote is required for Trump’s removal.

When the trial begins depends in part on how quickly the House moves, but it appears likely that it could begin—and run into—the beginning of primary and caucus season. In Iowa, the first state to vote, the caucuses will be held on February 3.

That means that Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) will be unable to campaign in person in the final weeks before Democrats begin to choose their presidential nominee.

But experts are divided on what kind of impact the trial will have on these 2020 candidates’ presidential campaigns—and those of their opponents who are not in the Senate.

Off the campaign trail, into the driver’s seat

Since much of America’s media will be descending on Washington, D.C., during the impeachment trial, there will be ample opportunities for candidates to appear in the spotlight. 

Democratic pollster Brad Bannon thinks this will bode well for the senators.

“The Democratic senators running for president will be in the driver’s seat during the trial,” Bannon told Fortune. “The other candidates will literally and figuratively be out in the cold. The national media spotlight will shine brightly on the nation’s capitol, while Des Moines and Concord will go dark. Even Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will be more focused on the drama in Washington during the Senate trial than they are events in their own states.”

Furthermore, Bannon believes that Booker and Klobuchar’s position on the Senate Judiciary Committee will give them an additional leg up, since they both participated in the hearings surrounding the Mueller investigation.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg could have trouble staying in the limelight, Bannon added, while former Vice President Joe Biden could be subject to scrutiny due to his son’s involvement in the Ukraine controversy, which could hurt his campaign. And ultimately, positive media attention is a key component of election success.

Bryan DeAngelis, a former aide to Sen. Chris Dodd and managing director at Hamilton Place Strategies, disagrees.

“The timing of the trial, at least as it looks now, is pretty terrible news,” DeAngelis told Fortune, noting that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has suggested the trial may be held six days a week.

The law requires senators to attend an impeachment trial. And, during the trial itself, senators are not permitted to speak—they can only send written questions, which limits exposure for the senators running for president while in the chambers. That means that they will only have opportunities to speak to the public (through media interviews) in the hours when the trial isn’t in session—and at that time, they’re likely to face questions about impeachment, not their campaigns. 

“It could be pretty devastating to several campaigns, especially those candidates who are not polling in the top tier but have invested in strong ground games, like Booker and Klobuchar,” DeAngelis says. “It’s going to be extremely difficult to break through without being on the ground and without having the funds that Warren or Sanders has in terms of being able to be on the air and running digital ads while they’re stuck back in Washington.” 

DeAngelis believes Biden and Buttigieg stand to benefit from this.

Hello from the other side

Unlike the senators in Washington, other candidates will be able to talk to real voters about the issues that matter to them, rather than relying on surrogates and TV and digital ads to serve in their place in the early voting states.

“There is no substitute for being on the ground in both Iowa and New Hampshire, which gives an advantage [to these two candidates],” DeAngelis says. Having Iowa basically to themselves is “a huge advantage.”

Despite this, the senator candidates appear prepared to fulfill their duty as members of the jury in the impeachment trial. 

Booker suggested to NPR in mid-October that “politics be damned.” 

“I swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution,” he said. “I didn’t swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution unless there’s an election coming up.”

Warren and Klobuchar made a similar statements, calling their attendance a constitutional duty. Sanders told ABC that he’ll “have to try to be in Washington, D.C, in Des Moines, Iowa, and Concord, New Hampshire at the same time.” 

The House hasn’t finished drafting the articles of impeachment, so we still don’t know when the trial will begin—or how long it will last. But if the Bill Clinton impeachment trial is any indication, we could be looking at a minimum five-week trial that could easily run through at least February 3.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr estimates even longer. Burr said in mid-November that he anticipated a six- to eight-week trial.

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