Impeachment throws curveball in Iowa to sidelined senators
The Iowa political operations that the leading senators in the Democratic presidential race have been building for the past year are being put to the ultimate test with just days to go before the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
With their candidates stuck in Washington for the Senate impeachment trial of President Trump, campaign staffers, organizers and surrogates for Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are under pressure to help make closing arguments before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
The trial kicked off this week and will keep senators in session for six days a week, although it’s set to end early afternoon on Saturday, allowing the 2020 Senate candidates to travel to Iowa for the weekend.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is looking to conclude the trial before Trump’s State of the Union speech on Feb. 4 but Democrats are pressing to bring in witnesses, which could lengthen the time frame.
“The more staff you have, the more volunteers you can recruit, the better chance you have of keeping your candidate top of mind, even if they’re not here making news in the state or holding events,” said Peter Leo, chairman of the Carroll County Democratic Party, who has endorsed Warren.
The competition in the state is fierce. Recent public polling shows four candidates — Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Buttigieg and Warren — bunched together at the top of the pack.
A Des Moines Register-CNN poll released earlier this month gave Sanders a 3-point lead, while a Monmouth University survey released days later showed Biden in the top spot.
Sanders has one of the largest operations in Iowa, boasting a paid staff of more than 250 and thousands of ultra-dedicated volunteers who can knock on doors and organize supporters ahead of caucus day.
At the same time, he has a roster of influential surrogates, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and film director Michael Moore, who are scheduled to rally for Sanders in Iowa City on Friday.
Sanders himself is scheduled to join the two at a rally in Iowa on Saturday night and campaign on Sunday with other surrogates.
Meanwhile, Warren has dispatched prominent surrogates, including former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), to the state to campaign for her in her absence.
She doesn’t have the largest Iowa team, employing roughly 150 paid staffers across 26 field offices. But multiple Democratic officials in Iowa said that her campaign’s organizing operations are among the best in the state, citing her team’s longtime presence there and her staffers’ deep local ties.
Warren plans to return to Iowa on Saturday as well as on Sunday, when she will make an appearance at a town hall with Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness.
Klobuchar has built a staff of more than 100 in Iowa, and is also leaning on a slate of endorsements from 16 current and former state legislators — the most of any candidate — to help her fill the void while she’s in Washington.
She’s also gotten some help from her daughter and husband, who have hosted “Hotdish House Parties” for her campaign in recent weeks, in a nod to one of her home state’s most iconic dishes.
She’s polling behind Biden, Sanders, Warren and Buttigieg, but is hoping to seize on a last-minute burst of momentum to propel her campaign forward.
“We’re facing a unique challenge having Amy in D.C.,” an aide to Klobuchar said. “But at the same time our day-to-day activities and what we’re doing here on the ground is the same as what we’ve always done. We’re going into communities and we’re meeting people where they are.”
“It’s up to us to kind of close the deal for her in the final few days,” the aide added.
Klobuchar on Friday unveiled a schedule of campaign appearances in Iowa starting on Jan. 30 and leading up to the Iowa caucus, a schedule that would ultimately depend on the timeline for the impeachment trial.
Another senator-turned-presidential hopeful, Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), is also stuck in Washington for the impeachment trial, though he’s focusing the bulk of his campaign resources in New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary election.
In Iowa, the candidates running for the Democratic nomination who aren’t senators are taking advantage of their rivals’ recent absence.
Biden has barnstormed the state in recent days, rolling out an endorsement from former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver on Friday and unleashing a new ad blitz. He’s also embarking on a bus tour of the state over the weekend.
And Buttigieg is set to attend 10 town halls across Iowa over the weekend.
“They’re certainly taking advantage of having the state to themselves,” said Leo, the Carroll County Democratic Party chairman. “That’s to be expected and the three senators that are kind of in that upper echelon of candidates have to know that.”
Nevertheless, the impeachment trial is throwing up other obstacles. CNN announced Thursday that it would reschedule a two-day candidate town hall event because of the Senate schedule.
Beyond relying on their campaign teams, the leading senators in the Democratic presidential contest are doing what they can to maintain something of a personal presence in Iowa while they’re stuck in Washington.
Klobuchar hosted a telephone town hall this week, in which voters could dial in to ask her questions. And she’s been sitting for remote interviews in the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Omaha media markets.
And Warren has also been fielding remote interviews with local radio and television stations in Iowa in between her Senate duties. She’s also set to take a road trip across the state in the final three days before the caucuses to make a closing argument for her campaign, though that would depend on when the trial ends.
Still, aides to the candidates concede that there’s not a perfect substitute for on-the-ground campaigning by the senators themselves.
“Elizabeth is the best advocate for herself and her ideas, and of course we wish she was able to be here more,” Jason Noble, Warren’s communications director in Iowa, said. “But the organizers’ job is to capture and direct all the support that exists, and we trust our team to excel at that whether our candidate is here or not.”
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