In a glittering ballroom in rural New Hampshire, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) riffed about President Trump to the Portsmouth Democratic Club recently, and then with a laugh, accepted their thank-you gift: a guide book on how to compete in the New Hampshire presidential primary.
Schiff dodged the bigger question as he stepped off the stage: Is he running for president?
“I’m only running for the House, but I’m honored to be asked the question,” Schiff said.
Does that preclude a run in the future? “I would never say never to something,” Schiff said, again skirting the question. “It’s fun coming up here, and I enjoy the idea that I might cause certain heads at Fox News to explode [if I ran.]”
Once a well regarded, but little-known representative, Schiff catapulted into the national spotlight as the highest ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, becoming a ubiquitous figure talking about the Russia investigation on cable news. The White House was apparently so annoyed by Schiff, that officials kept a spreadsheet about how much time he spent on air and shared it with reporters.
It’s also a horribly kept secret in Washington that Schiff is interested in a higher position. The question is what role that might be, and whether Schiff will risk his safe House seat to try for something bigger.
Schiff has raised nearly $5.5 million for candidates and the Democrats’ House campaign arm this cycle, according to his campaign, more than any House member outside of the congressional leadership. He’ll be campaigning for candidates in Florida this week and in California, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina in the weeks after that.
So far, however, Schiff’s plays for higher office have ended almost before they began.
When former California Sen. Barbara Boxer announced that she would not run for reelection after 25 years in Washington, Schiff considered a bid to replace her. But when now-Sen. Kamala Harris entered the race, the entire field of serious challengers, including Schiff —backed down.
When rumors circled last year that Sen. Dianne Feinstein might follow Boxer into retirement, Schiff’s was among the first names floated as a possible successor. He began building his war chest. When Feinstein decided to run for a fifth full term, Schiff backed her immediately. Some party strategists say he may be hoping she gives up the seat early, allowing him to be appointed to fill out the term.
When House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-New York) lost his primary this summer, Schiff told The Times he could be interested in a position in House leadership. But so far he hasn’t formally joined the field of candidates, and his office has tamped down expectations he will.
Schiff may be feeling “boxed in” as a white, male politician with limited chances for higher office in an increasingly diverse California, according to Bill Whalen, a fellow at the Hoover Institution think tank.
Harris will hold the U.S. Senate seat as long as she wants, he said. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, if elected as expected in November, will probably be governor for the next eight years. And it might not make sense to wait and see if Feinstein, who is also expected to win in November, retires before the end of her six-year term, Whalen said. There is no guarantee the next governor would appoint Schiff to the job.
“Where do you go?” said Fiona Hutton, president of Los Angeles strategy firm Fiona Hutton & Associates. “A lot of doors have closed, and there are a lot of talented people in politics.”
That could explain Schiff’s recent flirtation with jobs on the national level.
Rumors that Schiff was seriously considering a bid for president began circulating in Southern California political circles last spring. Some predict he may also be biding his time until the next Democratic White House, hoping for a Cabinet appointment.
For now, Schiff is crisscrossing the country, living out of a suitcase, to stump for local candidates. It’s the kind of quiet, local politicking that could make a difference if he decides to go for a bigger position.
When the New Hampshire dinner wrapped up late in the evening, Schiff hopped on a bus to Boston to catch a flight to Texas for campaign events there. He’s stumped for candidates in 23 states this year, including Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri and New Mexico, according to his campaign.
Whalen said Schiff appears to be someone who enjoys serving in public office more than campaigning for it. “He is somebody who thrives on the concept of the great mention,” Whalen said.
But several Democratic strategists attributed the missed opportunities to Schiff’s deliberative nature more than an inability to commit to a tough race.
“He doesn’t reach for the brass ring just because it is there," said Glenn Gritzner, a partner at the public strategy firm Mercury.
Any decision on what to do next seems contingent on the midterms.
Staying put in the House, especially if Democrats retake control of the chamber, could be an attractive option.
“You could argue the fact that it’s good for the Democratic Party, that it’s good he is where he is because he’s done a very good job,” said Bob Shrum, a former Democratic operative who is co-director of the Center for the Political Future at USC.
Schiff has consistently been reelected in his Hollywood-area district with more than 75% of the vote, and if Democrats take back the House in November, Schiff is in line to lead the Intelligence Committee. That would not only raise his public profile, it would allow him to conduct the kind of Russia investigation that he says House Republicans have refused to do.
If there is a House leadership shakeup in November, he could still seek a new role in the leadership structure, though such a move often precludes a run for higher office. He backs House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker, calling talk about the leadership race “simply a distraction” from the midterms.
But if Democrats don’t win the House, Schiff’s presidential calculation could shift again. Even the notoriety of losing a presidential bid might be better than two more years in the House minority. Democrats have controlled the House for only four of Schiff's 18 years in Washington.
“If Democrats don’t take the House, then all bets are off. If you are him, and you’ve been there as long as he has, and Congress doesn’t turn … you might look around,” Gritzner said.
If he is interested in a presidential run, he’s not breaking through yet. His foray to New Hampshire was mostly ignored by national media. But Schiff must have known the trip to the state with the nation's first primary would raise speculation.
“It’s a risk for anybody who comes here,” said retiring Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, who said she warned Schiff to expect questions about his future plans. “People are going to ask him. He has to make his own decision."