WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress are rushing to impeach President Donald Trump by Christmas, setting up a Senate trial that could bleed into 2020’s first presidential contests.
It’s a push that will set up Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to have even more power over her party than the first-year Democrat already has.
If Trump is impeached in the House and the Senate does choose to put him on trial, some of the top Democratic presidential candidates will be stuck in DC for as many as six days a week serving as jurors deciding whether or not Trump should be removed from office. Former president Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial lasted about five weeks, and Senate Republicans, who will control the process at the outset, could choose to keep the trial long to give themselves time to defend the president. That timeline could easily push a trial past both the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 11.
Inevitably, with senators unable to vigorously campaign themselves, the battle of the surrogates will ensue. But no candidate has what Sen. Bernie Sanders has in Ocasio-Cortez.
“She's one of the most talented communicators in American politics,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, a progressive group that helped elect Ocasio-Cortez in 2018. “And your ability to be able to communicate a clear message to voters should never be underestimated…[Ocasio-Cortez] has a message and she’s really clear about it.”
Since endorsing Sanders last month, the 30-year-old member of Congress has already been a hugely successful surrogate, joining the senator at an enormous rally in New York and canvassing for him in Iowa in November.
“You know, it's certainly a consideration,” Ocasio-Cortez recently told BuzzFeed News of campaigning for Sanders if there's a Senate trial. “I haven't made any hard commitments but … I think it's a possibility and it's certainly something that I'm open to.”
Ocasio-Cortez became a national celebrity after toppling former representative Joe Crowley, and her presidential endorsement has been perhaps the most significant of any so far in the 2020 Democratic primary. She holds major sway in the progressive movement as a whole, and she said Sanders inspired her insurgent run for Crowley’s seat.
“I didn't have health care. I wasn't being paid a living wage. And I didn't think that I deserved any of those things,” she said at a rally for Sanders in October. “It wasn't until I heard of a man by the name of Bernie Sanders that I began to question and assert and recognize my inherent value as a human being that deserves health care, housing, education, and a living wage.”
Ocasio-Cortez isn't the only House member who can hold her own crowd in the early primary states: Rep. Ayanna Pressley backed Sen. Elizabeth Warren this fall and has been out campaigning for her in the South. Pressley quickly showed how impactful she can be on the trail — in Atlanta last month, she settled a situation at a Warren event that had been interrupted by a group of mostly black pro–charter school protesters. But Pressley doesn’t have anywhere near the national profile of Ocasio-Cortez, her fellow “Squad” member who has flooded national news since last summer.
The House schedule in January will be a boon for Pressley’s and Ocasio-Cortez’s surrogate work. In all, the chamber is scheduled to be in session only about two weeks of the month, as the current congressional dynamic — with the center of the impeachment probe looming over everything in the House while the Senate quietly does its daily business — will flip, making it a perfect time for House surrogates to take to the trail.
Sanders and Warren both have other high-profile House surrogates who could help boost their campaigns during a Senate trial: Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib endorsed Sanders along with Ocasio-Cortez, and Reps. Deb Haaland and Katie Porter are serving as Warren’s campaign cochairs along with Pressley.
But the other senators still in the presidential race don’t have endorsers with such profiles. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker have racked up a number of backers, though none as well-known and closely watched as Ocasio-Cortez. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has picked up the endorsements of several members of the Minnesota delegation, and Sen. Michael Bennet has picked up just a single notable endorsement, according to FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker (that of Roy Romer, a former chair of the DNC).
The top candidates who won't have jobs in DC come January — Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg — will still have an advantage if much of their competition winds up stranded in Washington.
Since her election, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders have been working together on the Hill and on the trail often. Most recently, they introduced what they’re calling “Green New Deal for housing” legislation. (The Sanders campaign declined to comment for this story, declining to speculate about something still only hypothetical.)
“I think one of the benefits of movement politics is that it does give people an opportunity to come together and transcend race, class, religion, etc.,” Ocasio-Cortez told BuzzFeed News. “So I think what's been really fabulous is for people to hear the same political message from really different messengers, I think [it] underscores and underlines the kind of universal truth that we're trying to get at after here, which is the fact that things like health care, education, housing, should be treated as human rights, no matter who you are, where you come from.”
Taking that message on the trail will be hugely helpful for Sanders if he’s unable to campaign, Rep. Ro Khanna, a California Democrat who endorsed Sanders early on, told BuzzFeed News.
“I do think she can play a big role during the Senate trial, going to different states. I think it's an incredible asset for our campaign to have her out there,” he said. “Her story is very inspirational in that way and so I think that that appeals and I think it's a great asset for Bernie. And also, I think the biggest thing it does for Bernie is it shows that he's got clearly people who are going to be representing the party the next 20 to 30 years believing in him, and that’s a big validator.”
Ocasio-Cortez is also a fantastic surrogate for Sanders, Shahid of Justice Democrats told BuzzFeed News, because she talks often about her vision for the Democratic Party, something Sanders, as an independent, doesn’t frequently discuss.
“I want to be the party of the New Deal again. The party of the Civil Rights Act, the one that electrified this nation and fights for all people,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted recently, along with a video of her knocking on doors for Sanders. “For that, many would call us radical. But we aren’t ‘pushing the party left,’ we are bringing the party home.”
“That message is really good for a lot of people who feel strongly about being Democrats,” Shahid said. “I think she does a very good job providing a message about that.”
But no surrogate, however excellent, can ever compare to the candidate themselves, one former campaign manager warned.
“I think surrogates are overplayed, honestly,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “There are certain surrogates that mean a lot and they set a message from a media tone, and AOC does that for Bernie Sanders, but from a standpoint of being able to campaign without you, it’s tough.”
It’s especially tough, Sullivan said, in Iowa and New Hampshire, where voters expect to get to know the candidates themselves. Additionally, he said, good surrogates are most effective when they campaign with the candidates themselves. (The most poignant image of Ocasio-Cortez on the trail for Sanders, for example, has been her and Sanders clasping hands with big smiles at the New York rally.)
But as far as surrogates go, Sullivan said he believes Ocasio-Cortez is extremely effective for Sanders.
“What makes AOC such a valuable surrogate is that it strengths Bernie’s message of, ‘Look, I’m the original socialist, all the other cool young socialists love me. It also helps cover for the fact that I’m 800 years old. Young people like me,’” he said. “Those are the surrogates who do help.”
If your candidate has to be off the trail, it’s that sort of surrogate who’s going to be most helpful, but having to stop campaigning for six days a week right before the Iowa caucus is a burden Sullivan said is damn near impossible to overcome.
“Better somebody else than me,” he said with a laugh.