After straining all year to make their candidacies about things bigger than disgust with President Trump, Democratic White House hopefuls now find themselves in the thick of a primary contest abruptly upended by the party’s clamor to impeach him.
With the launch of impeachment proceedings in the House, 2020 candidates are tossing out a playbook that ruled out much talk of removing the president from office and are now leaning into it. The new, uncertain landscape is creating potential opportunities for some candidates, but also room for peril.
“I had never intended when I got into this presidential race that it would be about impeachment,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said while campaigning in New Hampshire this week. She quickly turned the focus back to her core message while campaigning in South Carolina on Saturday, where she did not mention impeachment. “We have a lot of things to talk about,” she said when a reporter asked her about the omission after the event.
Still, Warren allies are bragging that months ago, she was the first major candidate in the race to call for Trump’s impeachment. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has both the benefit and the burden of being directly involved in the impeachment case, talks about impeachment at almost every opportunity. Sen. Kamala Harris of California is trying to leverage the issue to jump start her flagging campaign by brandishing her prosecutorial credentials.
For most of the lesser-known candidates, however, the Trump scandal poses an existential threat by guaranteeing they get even less attention than before.
“The problem for all of them is it denies them oxygen,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist who was deputy campaign manager for John F. Kerry’s 2004 presidential bid.
Biden is getting plenty of new attention whether he wants it not: At the center of the impeachment inquiry are revelations that Trump leaned on the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to dig up dirt on Biden and his son Hunter, who had business dealings in Ukraine.
Biden has started wearing Trump’s obsession with his family’s Ukraine dealings like a badge of honor, saying it is a sign that Trump is worried about his strength as an adversary in 2020.
“It is clear he will stop at nothing to hold on to power,” Biden said at a Las Vegas rally Friday. “After 70 straight polls have shown me beating him, it’s not surprising I have become the object of his attention.” A video pinned to the top of Biden’s Twitter spotlights the whole Ukraine mess.
That, however, has also brought renewed attention to Hunter Biden’s work with a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice president. Even though the specific claims by Trump and fellow Republicans haven’t stood up to scrutiny, and there’s no evidence of wrongdoing by the former vice president, the younger Biden does appear to have benefited from his father’s prominence.
Rivals in his own party — even those running on a message of anticorruption — are proceeding cautiously when asked about that topic. Most don’t want to be associated with Trump’s smears.
“We’re not going to let you do this again to another patriot,” New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker tweeted at Trump, making a reference to the Russian hacking of campaign emails that embroiled the 2016 race.
Others are less resolute. Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet took a light jab by comparing Hunter Biden’s business dealings to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance of huge speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. Both, he told Politico, create unnecessary political liabilities. (He added that Trump’s phone call with Zelensky was likely a “million” times worse than anything Hunter Biden did.)
Some candidates are working furiously to make themselves stars of the impeachment drama. None more so than Harris, whose campaign is refocusing the spotlight on a hearing in May in which she asked Atty. Gen. William Barr if Trump directed him to investigate any particular people. Barr demurred.
Now that the attorney general is suspected of helping Trump pursue dirt on Biden, Harris is demanding he be brought back to testify.
She is also calling for the disbarment of Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor who Trump unleashed to investigate Biden. Harris built a fundraising pitch around Giuliani’s attack of her on Fox News.
“I’ll start with this: Trump’s lawyer really needs a lawyer,” said an email to donors penned by Harris spokesman Ian Sams. “And I’ll follow by saying this: There is no candidate in this race for president who is better equipped to stick it to these guys than Kamala D. Harris.”
While impeachment is proving a popular — and lucrative — fundraising mechanism for most in the race, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is distinguishing himself by specifically not raising money off it.
“We didn’t think it was appropriate to fundraise off a national crisis,” said Chris Meagher, a spokesman for Buttigieg, who supports impeachment proceedings. “What we’re seeing in Washington from the other side of the aisle is the effect of putting politics above everything else. We can’t do that anymore. This is a time to put the country before politics.”
The candidates are also grappling with the reality that not every voter is pining for the expulsion of Trump. The night House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced impeachment proceedings were underway, canvassers with Working America, the organizing arm of the AFL-CIO, were out talking with voters in Scranton, Pa. They had 65 conversations. Not one of the voters mentioned impeachment.
“It is hard for a lot of swing voters to distinguish this from every other scandal this president is associated with,” said Matt Morrison, executive director of the group.
A Morning Consult/Politico poll conducted this week found voters nationwide evenly split on impeachment, even as 79% of Democrats support the idea.
Some Democrats are nevertheless concerned about electoral backlash. “I worry it’s a waste of time,” said Mabel Younger, a Democrat from Colorado who attended Warren’s South Carolina rally while visiting her daughter. “People are going to be so fed up with the whole thing that they are not going to go out and vote.”
Other Democrats who have experience campaigning in the shadow of an impeachment say the baggage will be heavier for Trump.
Former Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in 2000, struggled to stand apart from Bill Clinton, whose reputation was scarred by impeachment proceedings he ultimately survived.
“It really hurt Gore a lot,” said Tad Devine, who was a senior advisor to the candidate. “Voters were resentful that President Clinton was not truthful. That wore Gore down. Especially after the first debate.”
After the candidate faltered and misspoke a couple of times during the first debate with George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, Gore never recovered, Devine said.
“They said he was misleading people,” Devine said. “They said he would be like Clinton, deceptive.”
It resonated with voters.