WASHINGTON – The start of public impeachment hearings in the House this week are likely to push the race for the White House into a new phase, testing whether Democratic efforts to investigate President Donald Trump risk hurting the party in the 2020 election.
Democratic front-runner Joe Biden will also be a central figure in the proceedings, which will challenge his political resilience. And six senators in the running, including top contenders Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, will be jurors in a trial that may force them off the campaign trail at a crucial moment.
While U.S. public opinion has moved in favor of impeachment, the country is deeply divided along party lines and Trump remains highly competitive against top Democrats in swing states like Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania that played the key role in his 2016 victory.
The House proceedings will pit the Democrats’ message — that Trump gravely abused his power — against his insistence that the impeachment effort is a political “coup” to remove him from office.
An Economist/YouGov poll last week found independents split, with 39 percent favoring impeachment and 35 percent opposing it. But 27 percent were unsure and the hearings may be clarifying for that group. Those conclusions could sway the 2020 vote.
The trial will also sideline the campaigns of White House-aspiring senators if they are forced to spend time in Washington in the run-up to the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses, where voters demand to see candidates in person. That stands to help the nonsenators in the race, such as Pete Buttigieg or Biden, secure traction in the early nominating states.
“It certainly could help someone like Buttigieg or Biden, who will have the field literally and figuratively to themselves,” said Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh, though she cautioned that such an advantage wouldn’t make up for a lack of organizing in early states.
Impeachment threatens to overshadow other issues in the Democratic contest and deprive of oxygen lower-polling candidates in a crowded field, such as Senators Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar. Still, their role in the trial will give lawmakers an opportunity to make their mark before a national television audience.
“I’ll be there,” Warren told reporters in Iowa this month. “This is a constitutional responsibility. I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hinted he’d use the calendar as leverage when negotiating an impeachment process with Democrats, while saying he expects the chamber to ultimately acquit Trump.
“How long does the Senate want to take?” the Kentucky Republican told reporters on Tuesday. “How long do the presidential candidates want to be here on the floor of the Senate instead of in Iowa and New Hampshire?”
But even if the trial ends with acquittal in the Republican-majority Senate, some Democrats hope it’ll damage Trump’s re-election prospects.
“I want a front-row, center seat!” said Terrence Mummert of Summerville, South Carolina, who came to see Elizabeth Warren at a town hall Saturday near Charleston. “What I’m looking forward to most about it is that it interferes with his run for the presidency. I’m hoping it will. I have no respect for the man.”
Less than a year before the election, impeachment takes Democratic hopefuls into uncharted waters. Trump is only the fourth president in U.S. history to face such an inquiry, and the first in a modern political and media landscape marked by partisan polarization and the rapid proliferation of disinformation. The president’s erratic temperament and intensely loyal base add another measure of unpredictability to the proceedings.
“I would like to see him leave in disgrace, just like Nixon,” said Isaac Simmons of Summerville, South Carolina.
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh previewed the president’s message in a statement saying that the “sham” impeachment proceedings will fire up his supporters.
“Election Day 2020 is less than a year away and Democrats have no good explanation for why they want to take the decision of electing a president out of voters’ hands,” Murtaugh said. “They know they can’t beat Donald Trump so they have to try to impeach him.”
The inquiry began after Trump asked Ukraine’s president in a phone call to do him a “favor” by investigating Biden and his son Hunter over a position the younger Biden held with a Ukrainian company. Some U.S. diplomats involved in Ukraine affairs have suggested Trump pursued a quid pro quo by blocking U.S. aid to Ukraine until the country initiated the probe against his political rival. Trump denies he did anything wrong.
“NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!” Trump tweeted Sunday, urging Republicans to defend him.
Of the 2020 contenders, Biden has been the most vocal during the twists and turns of the House investigation, with his campaign releasing regular statements blasting the president after new witnesses offer testimony alleging wrongdoing.
Since the inquiry was announced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Sept. 24, support for impeaching the president has risen. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 49 percent of Americans favor impeaching and removing the president while 46 percent oppose the idea. Support grew by 6 points since early October and opposition fell by 3 points.
But the country remains divided along party lines: 88 percent of Democrats support Trump’s impeachment and removal, while 90 percent of Republicans oppose it. Independents are torn, with 43 percent favoring it and 46 percent opposing it.
“The polls for impeachment have already gone up,” said Marsh, the Democratic strategist. “I think having public testimony is going to increase support for removal.”