The eruption of impeachment proceedings against President Trump has thrown the Democratic presidential campaign abruptly off track, as the candidates scramble to respond forcefully on the scandal while simultaneously focusing on the bread-and-butter policies they have touted for months.
The unusual split messaging pushes the primary into complicated terrain just four months before the first nominating contest in Iowa. While the candidates are vying for the chance to unseat Trump in 2020, Democratic leaders in Congress have initiated an inquiry focusing on a different question entirely — whether to remove him from office before then.
The response has sometimes been awkward. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) recently delivered impassioned remarks on unions, but tacked on a statement about impeachment beforehand after consulting with aides. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) fielded questions about Medicare-for-all at a town hall last week, then faced inquiries from reporters on impeachment. Former vice president Joe Biden spent a few minutes discussing impeachment at a recent stop before turning to an abbreviated version of his usual speech.
“It definitely throws a monkey wrench into everybody’s talking points,” said Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.), who supports Biden and endorsed an impeachment inquiry for the first time last week. “It’s something extra that they have to talk about.”
While leading Democrats increasingly demand forceful statements on Trump’s actions, many voters and activists are urging candidates not to stop talking about how they would provide health insurance to more Americans, shrink the gap between rich and poor, and combat climate change. Some bluntly warn that devoting too much attention to impeachment could be a costly mistake.
“Impeachment is an afterthought for a lot of people,” said Elesha Gayman, the chair of Scott County Democratic Party in Iowa. “I appreciate them coming out with a statement, but that’s about where it needs to end. I think the most important thing to carry forward for the Democrats is going to be having a message and a vision for what they are going to bring to the table.”
She added: “I think, especially in the Democratic Party, we lose elections when we make it about ‘we’re better than the other guy’ and we don’t lay out a vision.”
What’s clear is that the furor in Washington injects another huge dose of uncertainty, at a critical moment, into a contest that was already highly fluid. The field is likely to winnow soon, and the impeachment focus threatens to take even more oxygen from hopefuls who already had limited time to make an impact.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took the rare step of beginning impeachment proceedings against Trump last week after he acknowledged urging the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Many Democrats say dislodging Trump from office is unlikely, given the strong support for him in the Republican-controlled Senate, where a two-thirds vote is needed for removal.
Nevertheless, the Democratic presidential field has largely lined up behind Pelosi, endorsing her inquiry and vocally condemning Trump’s conduct. A whistleblower complaint at the center of the controversy alleges that Trump misused his office for personal gain and that unidentified White House officials took improper actions to keep it a secret. Trump has said he did nothing wrong.
Some voters expressed concerns about the Democrats forging ahead on impeachment. Diana Kroeger, 52, an independent from Hollis, N.H., who stood in line for a photo with Warren after her Friday town hall event there, said “I’m worried” about the process, fearing it will further divide the country.
Will Norona, an autoworker from Flint, Mich., who walked a picket line in front of a GM plant in Detroit last week with Sanders, said he worried that focusing on impeachment could take attention away from other issues.
“Our focus is on this,” said Norona, 43, speaking of the autoworkers strike.
But other Democrats, believing Trump to be increasingly vulnerable, want to see the candidates call him out more aggressively than ever.
“They’ve got to keep the focus on Trump while hot lights are on him,” said Gilda Cobb-Hunter, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and a veteran South Carolina Democrat.
Shawana Love, 42, an undecided voter who also joined the picket line in Detroit, said seeing the Democrats take steps toward impeaching Trump gets her more excited about the election. “Impeach his a–!” Love said.
The fast-moving developments and clashing voter sentiments are prompting many of the candidates to dedicate valuable time at campaign events — and devote space on their social media pages — to responding to the latest Trump news with outrage.
But they are taking different tacks.
Warren has been pointing out that she advocated impeachment proceedings long before the recent revelations about Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian president. Warren has been rising in the polls, and some of her rivals have begun criticizing her policies, but the impeachment furor could make that harder with so much attention focused on Trump.
“The way to hold this president of the United States accountable is to impeach him,” Warren told reporters after Friday’s town hall. “So I hope we go forward with care and deliberation, but that we do it quickly. I think it’s important. The American people are counting on us.”
Some Warren allies say that she is well-suited to talk about the issue because it is in line with one of her core campaign themes — tackling corruption.
“For Elizabeth Warren, it’s right in the middle of the bull’s eye,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren. “Assuming this keeps going, I would be surprised if she didn’t integrate it more and more into her stump speech.”
Still, the current landscape presents the paradox that if Trump were to be removed — a remote prospect at the moment — the Democratic nominee would presumably be running against Vice President Pence, not the figure they’ve been railing against for months.
Sanders has been more cautious about the prospect of impeachment. While he also supports an inquiry, a point he has emphasized repeatedly in recent days, he has long focused on policy, and he warned Democrats not to abandon work on other important issues.
“The Congress of the United States must show the American people that it can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Sanders said last week in Davenport, Iowa.
Warren, Sanders and the four other senators in the race have to keep another variable in mind: They would effectively become jurors in a Senate trial if the House votes to impeach Trump and Senate leaders move ahead with a judicial proceeding.
“Let’s have that trial in the United States Senate,” Sanders said in Plymouth, N.H., on Sunday. “I will do my best to look at the facts as objectively as I can.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) has sought to use the impeachment inquiry to remind voters of her experience as a prosecutor and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Harris canceled a recent fundraiser in Los Angeles to fly back to Washington for a meeting of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to which she also belongs.
Biden is tethered to the situation more directly than any other candidate. During a July 25 phone call, Trump requested that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate Biden, according to a rough transcript of the conversation that the White House released. Biden’s son Hunter had served on the board of Burisma, Ukraine’s largest private gas company, whose owner came under scrutiny by Ukrainian prosecutors for possible abuse of power. Hunter was not accused of wrongdoing.
As vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire the top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who many Western officials said was not sufficiently pursuing corruption. At the time, the investigation into Burisma was dormant, according to former Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
Despite the centrality of his role, Biden has been more reticent than some of his rivals when it comes to impeachment.
At a recent fundraiser in Southern California, Biden said he and his family had done nothing wrong and accused Trump of trying to “hijack an election so we do not focus on the issues that matter in our lives.” He added, “This is not about me.”
Rufus Gifford, a former ambassador to Denmark and who has donated to Biden and other candidates this year, said he sees both opportunity and peril for the former vice president.
“It’s very much a double-edged sword. On one hand, anyone kind of wants to be mano a mano with Trump right now,” said Gifford, who was finance director for Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign. At the same time, Gifford said, it could prompt some Democrats to question whether the Ukraine situation would be a vulnerability for Biden — chipping away at his assertion that he’s the most electable Democrat — and “those questions have to be answered.”
In the meantime, the drama set to unfold in coming weeks — likely to feature explosive congressional hearings, angry partisan debates, bitterly contested votes on the House floor and possibly further revelations about Trump — adds a daunting, unpredictable dynamic that, even more than the campaign so far, is outside the candidates’ control.
As South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said recently, “Nobody knows what the political consequences of impeachment are.”
Annie Linskey in Hollis, N.H., Chelsea Janes in Plymouth, N.H., Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Las Vegas and David Weigel in Austin contributed to this report.