Impeachment threatens to create conflicts for Democratic candidates

Democrats are concerned the House impeachment inquiry could bleed into the primary season and take presidential candidates such as Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenCalifornia Democrats warn of low turnout in recall election Pelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans Warren hits the airwaves for Newsom ahead of recall election MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie SandersFive things to watch in two Ohio special election primaries This week: Senate starts infrastructure sprint Senators introduce bipartisan infrastructure bill in rare Sunday session MORE (I-Vt.) off the campaign trail.

Six senators are competing for the nomination, setting up an unusual scheduling conflict as they barnstorm the early states. 

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“It’s a really bad move,” said one Democratic strategist. “These proceedings are going to take up all the oxygen and they’re going loom large over the primary season when the only thing these candidates should be doing is campaigning. 

“We’re getting dangerously close to stepping on our own primary season and ensuring that our candidates do nothing but talk about impeachment and not policy,” the strategist said. 

It also forces the senators running for president to decide whether to stay in Washington for an impeachment trial when they could be spending time in Iowa or New Hampshire.

“The candidates are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If they miss impeachment proceedings it won’t look good,” the strategist said. 

Basil Smikle, the former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, said talking about impeachment and not health care and other policies could cost candidates. 

“There’s always a concern that the more candidates spend time talking about impeachment, the less they can talk policy, which helped Democrats retake the House in 2018,” Smikle said. 

Polls show growing support for an impeachment inquiry, but they also show a majority of voters want Trump’s fate to be decided in next year’s election. 

Fifty-two percent of respondents to an NPR-PBS Newshour and Marist poll last week said they backed an impeachment inquiry, but 58 percent said Trump’s future should be decided by voters next year. 

The candidates have been taking a wait-and-see approach to the inquiry. 

Asked if there is concern about impeachment taking Sanders off the trail, his campaign manager Faiz Shakir told The Hill in an email, “Not at the moment. The House has a lot of work still to do before we get to that stage.” 

A Democratic aide close to the Warren campaign said “the action is happening in the early states now.” Another ally said she’s “a senator first. Candidate second.” 

In an interview with NPR this week, Sen. Cory BookerCory BookerWomen urge tech giants to innovate on office return Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action Senate Democrats press administration on human rights abuses in Philippines MORE (D-N.J.) said the impeachment inquiry should proceed. 

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

“So politics be damned,” he added. “I have a job to do, which is to hold the executive accountable, and we should be doing that.” 

Democratic strategist Zac Petkanas said the impeachment inquiry may in fact help candidates like Booker and Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - CDC equates Delta to chickenpox in contagiousness Harris's bad polls trigger Democratic worries Why in the world are White House reporters being told to mask up again? MORE (D-Calif.) who are behind in the polls. 

“This could actually be good for them,” Petkanas said. “It puts them close to the center of the storm in a way that other candidates may not have.”

“How does Kamala Harris handle impeachment on the Senate floor? That’s going to be a real moment for her,” he added.

“This would be an opportunity to break through. Politically there’s no downside.” 

Democratic strategist Karen Finney said the candidates also “have an opportunity to draw a stark contrast between the way they would lead and deal with corruption and any appearance of it with the drama and corruption of the Trump White House and the chaos of the GOP.”

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University said the inquiry would not be “necessarily problematic.”

“It will take them off the road, but it will also allow the legislators to participate in a potentially damaging debate for Republicans about the corruption of the president and the complicity of the GOP,” Zelizer said. 

The candidates who should be concerned are the ones who don’t serve in the Senate.

“You want to be at the center of the conversation rather than trying to light your hair on fire,” Petkanas said.