Will Impeachment Help or Hurt Senators Running For President?

The process could give some Democrats—Amy Klobuchar in particular—the chance to boost their campaigns.

Conventional wisdom holds that impeaching Donald Trump will be a disaster for the Democratic senators running for President. If the House votes to impeach Trump before the end of 2019, his trial in the Senate would likely occur in early 2020, before or near the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. If Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg can attend events in early primary states while Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Michael Bennett are stuck on Capitol Hill, it would give Biden and Buttigieg a significant advantage.

For candidates like Sanders and Warren, who already have great name recognition and sizeable war chests, sitting through an impeachment trial poses less of a problem. They can afford to continue running ads and already sit near or at the top of the polls. But for senators in the lower tier of the presidential race, being sidelined by impeachment proceedings could be fatal. If they can’t attend as many campaign events as Biden or Buttigieg—or run as many campaign ads as Sanders or Warren—they would seem to have little hope of surpassing those candidates.

But there is another possibility. The lesser known senator candidates could use impeachment to attract national attention and boost their campaigns. It won’t be easy. An impeachment trial in the Senate is not conducive to a breakout moment in the same way as a judicial confirmation hearing. But by seizing the rare opportunity to serve as a spokesperson for the case against Trump, some candidates—Klobuchar in particular—may be able to use impeachment to their advantage.

Unlike a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, an impeachment trial in the Senate will not give senators the chance to take center stage. While selected House members will prosecute the case against Trump, while Trump’s legal team will mount his defense, Senators serve as jurors, primarily sitting in silence. They are permitted to ask questions, but only indirectly, with those questions put forth by the presiding judge. Senators will almost certainly deliberate in private before rendering their verdict, leaving no opportunities during the trial for viral moments.

But even though senators sit quietly during the actual trial, they will have a wide audience awaiting their reactions and opinions every morning before the trial and every evening after. By going on programs like Morning Joe, The Rachel Maddow Show, and Anderson Cooper 360, these senators can put themselves in front of many of the same Democratic primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire they would otherwise meet in diners in Concord and Burlington. In fact, they will reach many more of them, with the chance to attract new donors and supporters throughout the country after every appearance.

All of the senators running for president will certainly want to be on those shows. But the two most likely to be invited regularly are Harris and Klobuchar, for the simple reason that both are former prosecutors. Voters appreciate experts who can distill complex issues in reliable and easy-to-understand ways. By providing methodical explanations of what transpired in each day’s testimony, breaking down the evidence against Trump, and addressing the veracity of arguments made by Republicans, Harris and Klobuchar can simultaneously shift public opinion of Trump’s culpability and raise their own profiles.

In the best-case scenario, Harris or Klobuchar can emerge from the impeachment drama as an experienced, knowledgeable, but not overly partisan, leader, which is perhaps the ideal contrast to the president.

Yet because Harris’s and Klobuchar’s campaigns are headed in different directions; the latter frankly has more of an opportunity to boost her campaign through impeachment than the former.

Harris has already had her moment. Her poll numbers peaked in the summer after the first primary debate in which she attacked Joe Biden’s old views on busing (which don’t appear to differ significantly from her own). Since then, her numbers have dropped substantially and she has laid off staff and closed campaign offices. It’s possible that Harris could surge again, but candidates rarely do so after already rising and falling like she has.

Klobuchar, on the other hand, has at least some momentum. A few months ago, her campaign was on the ropes and she was routinely polling at around one percent nationally. After a widely praised October debate performance, however, Klobuchar’s campaign has consistently gained ground. She has climbed into the top five in Iowa and has already qualified for the December debate.

If Biden’s campaign continues to falter, Klobuchar and Buttigieg also appear to have the best chance of gaining Biden supporters in search of a more “moderate” or “electable” candidate.

Unlike Buttigieg, Klobuchar is an extremely experienced leader with a track record of legislative success, having been named the most effective Democratic senator in the 115th Congress, and  who ranked first in bills signed in the 114th Congress. She is also the only candidate with a proven ability to consistently win elections in red and purple districts, including those Trump won in 2016.

Detractors sometimes argue that electability is a myth—that there is really no way to know who would do well in a general election. It’s true that nobody can predict the future, but Klobuchar has at least proven that she can outperform fellow Democrats in Minnesota, which gives her a stronger argument that she can perform in key swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

Of course, there is a chance that the conventional wisdom is right. An impeachment trial could be a boon to Biden and Buttigieg. Lower tier candidates could watch their funding dry up and their poll numbers drop during the trial, resulting in the end of their campaigns. But with less than three months before the Iowa caucuses, candidates must seize every opportunity they can. Becoming one of the leading voices making the case against Trump might just give some them the jumpstart they need to reshape the race.

Washington Monthly - Donate today and your gift will be doubled!

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

David Edward Burke

David Edward Burke is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and the founder of Citizens Take Action, a nonprofit organization focused on campaign finance reform and increasing civic engagement.