vision 2020

Is Impeachment the End of the Road for Most of the 2020 Field?

Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker are among the candidates who were already fighting to maintain their relevance in the race. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

The closing days of a fundraising quarter are usually hectic for presidential candidates and their top-level staffers, who are tasked with pulling in every last dime they can find and figuring out what to do with the cash. This week — punctuated by the lightning-fast ramp-up of an official impeachment inquiry into the president — was different. By Tuesday, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi formally announced the move, it was clear to aides of most of the 18 at-least-semi-serious remaining Democratic campaigns that, with the country’s attention squarely on Capitol Hill and the White House, they’d suddenly fallen further off the national radar than ever before. By Thursday, that attention was even more intensely focused, and a handful of campaign operatives began ringing internal alarm bells so loudly that their candidates had no choice but to start reckoning with the painful reality that no one cares about them right now. By the end of the week, in campaign offices scattered across the country, senior-level operatives finally sat down in small groups to discuss what the path forward now looks like for their campaigns — or, in some cases, whether they have realistic ones at all. A senior aide to one campaign described his team’s Friday gathering as “a ‘we’re fucked, what do we do?’ meeting.”

The big-picture strategic concern for every campaign now is that no one has any clue how long the impeachment process will take, what kind of attention it will command, or which way its politics will break. (See: Joe Biden’s team using Donald Trump’s lashing out as evidence of Biden’s electability — proving the president is most worried about the former vice-president in the general election — while much of the rest of the field quietly bets that the deluge of news about his son will sink Biden.) But the more immediate problem for almost everyone in the still-massive field not named Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Pete Buttigieg is money. Specifically, having enough of it to maintain real campaigns for the next few months.

That’s because impeachment, for this crowd, couldn’t have come at a more delicate time: the end of the final quarter before most pols believe the race gets serious, and therefore the exact moment they were banking on generating as much coverage and attention as possible, to raise as much money as possible — to keep afloat for as long as possible, or to finally make much-needed campaign hires and investments just as voters start paying serious attention. Take Cory Booker, whose campaign manager, Addisu Demissie, circulated a memo last Saturday morning ringing his own alarm. He wrote that if the senator didn’t raise $1.7 million in the final ten days of the quarter — which ends with September, on Monday — he would have to drop out, deprived of a “legitimate long-term path forward,” in Demissie’s words. This show of vulnerability (a classic Booker maneuver, to those who know him best and are used to his attention-grabbing tactics) seemed to work at first: Money poured in, setting him up to hit the stated mark. Other campaigns watched closely for clues as to how to replicate that success, since Demissie had simply stated out loud what a handful of other campaign managers would admit only in private about their finances. But Booker’s fundraising pace slowed as the week progressed, and as the impeachment inquiry comprehensively smothered attention to any other topic, including the Democratic primary and Booker’s push.

Booker may have raised enough in the first few days to survive. But the squeeze is now on.

“The media, prior to this, was already making it a three-to-five person race, and now there’s a solar eclipse of a story that will make it really, really difficult to drive any message,” says Glen Caplin, who was a senior advisor to Kirsten Gillibrand’s campaign. “The entire conversation now is going to be driven around Trump and impeachment, and it’s going to be a real challenge for candidates in the bottom five to get coverage, and even those in the top five to drive it on any given day.”

A senior aide to one candidate still in the race put it a little less delicately: “It sucks, actually. Impeachment’s gonna kill anyone who’s not a senator or in the top five. We’re fucked.”

The likely difficulty for candidates from El Paso to Minneapolis isn’t just an inability to break through in the saturated national media environment, though that is one concern. (“It’s been the most nationalized race I’ve ever seen, driven by nationalized media coverage,” said Caplin, who also worked for Hillary Clinton in 2016.) Instead, it’s the subsequent lack of cash that begets a long-term inability to build up infrastructure in early-voting states and to invest in paid advertising, which a consultant to a middle-tier campaign characterized as the “one way you can break through right now,” since ads aren’t dependent on the news cycle. And that doesn’t just determine whether candidates can make it to the next few debate stages, a necessary hurdle to long-term viability. In fact, “the choices that are going to be on the ballot in February and March are being set now,” said yet another senior aide helping lead a campaign struggling to stay afloat. “The main thing that is determining whether you can participate in that ultimate campaign is finances.”

Some candidates could raise money off their potential involvement in impeachment, most prominently the House members or the senators who could have a vote on Trump’s ultimate fate. (Supporters of Kamala Harris, for one, have been highlighting clips of her past questioning of Attorney General Bill Barr.) But this has, for now, proven an unconvincing pitch for potential supporters, according to people familiar with multiple candidates’ digital fundraising numbers.

So far, candidates are largely playing it safe and keeping their heads down — they’ll answer questions about impeachment when asked, and issue statements, but no campaign has yet reset its messaging to be all about Trump’s corruption or the investigation. Even billionaire Tom Steyer — who rose to national prominence in part by campaigning for Trump’s impeachment, and who doesn’t need to raise money but could use all the attention he can get — unveiled a new global climate plan on Friday, sticking to his pre-impeachment plan. Montana Governor Steve Bullock unveiled a public lands proposal. But as the week closed, some aides for other campaigns considered last-ditch direction changes at their “we’re fucked” meetings. “You basically have two choices: Say outlandish shit about impeachment, or do something so big that people have to pay attention. Hard to do at tier two or below,” said one top strategist for a candidate who will, at least, make the next debate stage.

And, as Julián Castro can attest, distinguishing oneself as especially aggressive on the investigations has little demonstrated upside for lower-tier contenders. The former Housing Secretary was the first candidate to call for Trump’s impeachment in April, but he saw little if any polling bump from it. Warren, on the other hand, jumpstarted her struggling campaign in part by making a similar call after Castro.

The best bet for some such hopefuls, then, might simply be hoping the pace of impeachment news slows, and that this week’s deluge proves atypical. “I’m not sure how long it’s gonna last,” said one strategist for a faltering campaign.

Castro, for one, appears to have a similar wish. And he needs all the help he can get. “I don’t say this lightly,” he wrote to supporters on Thursday. “If I don’t make the next debate stage, it will be the end of my campaign.”

Is Impeachment the End of the Road for Most 2020 Democrats?