DES MOINES – More than a dozen Iowa lawmakers assembled at the State Capitol on Tuesday in a well-choreographed display of regional support for U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, just weeks ahead of the first-in-the-nation caucuses that will determine the viability of her White House bid.
All that was missing from the political tableau was the candidate.
Klobuchar had left Iowa earlier in the morning, bound for Washington, D.C., jury duty as a senator in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.
Confronted with a trial that could drag out a week or more, Klobuchar’s campaign has been forced to rely on a little help from friends, family and a cadre of surrogates who can keep her name fresh in the minds of voters sorting through a dwindling field of Democrats vying for the party nomination.
“We’re an army of legislators, and we’re going to be talking to people in our districts and, for that measure, to people all across the state to let them know we’re behind Amy,” said Iowa state Sen. Liz Mathis, who represents the Cedar Rapids area. Klobuchar, she said, “has laid the groundwork, she’s made an impression on people and it’s up to us to keep getting that word out.”
The enforced absence comes at a critical stage for Klobuchar’s bid in Iowa, a neighboring Midwestern state she has visited 30 times as a presidential candidate, underscoring its significance to her campaign hopes. Riding a slow rise in the polls here for several months, Klobuchar has been drawing bigger crowds and generating much needed media attention.
Now the Minnesota senator’s campaign team must figure out how to fill the void.
The trial, which got underway Tuesday in the Senate, gave Klobuchar and at least the three other senators in the race — including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — a chance to perform on the national stage.
“This is my constitutional duty, and that’s how it is,” Klobuchar said on her way to the Senate floor. “We’re all sitting in there.”
But she and some other Democratic senators bristled at rules set by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell limiting press access to the proceedings. Klobuchar criticized plans for “closed-door sessions and keeping things away from the press,” adding, “I think that is outrageous.”
U.S. Capitol security personnel forced Klobuchar and a Star Tribune reporter to move twice — once from the Senate reception area and once from an anteroom adjacent to the Senate floor — in order to speak.
Dozens of news organizations and several reporters’ groups protested the access restrictions, which they said made politicians less accountable to their constituents.
Klobuchar and Sen. Tina Smith, the state’s junior Democratic senator, also joined the debate over GOP efforts to restrict testimony by administration witnesses. As she entered the chamber at the trial’s start, Klobuchar, a former prosecutor, said the “real debate” was about the right to call witnesses. Noting that she never prosecuted a case where she wanted less evidence, Klobuchar said Trump’s attempts to block witnesses and documents from impeachment investigators and jurors is unprecedented.
“When you have a trial,” she said, “you have witnesses and you have documents.”
Meanwhile in Iowa, a team of surrogates comprised of family and political allies will step in for Klobuchar at campaign events all over the state. Her daughter, Abigail Bessler, was scheduled to host “Hotdish House Parties” at private homes in Stanton and Iowa City on Tuesday and Wednesday. Leading Minnesota Democrats, including U.S. Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan are likely to show up in Iowa on Klobuchar’s behalf.
“I’m not going to be able to come back for a while,” Klobuchar said Monday night at a town hall in Mason City, her last scheduled stop in the state for the time being. Klobuchar told the crowd of about 150 likely caucusgoers that she’s “asking for your understanding and consideration. I have a constitutional duty. It is my job to be one of 100 jurors.”
While Klobuchar, Warren and Sanders remain trapped in Washington, former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg both have multiple Iowa events in upcoming days.
“There’s no question it hurts candidates who can’t be here,” said David Yepsen, a longtime political journalist and analyst who now hosts a politics show on Iowa public television. “We’re in the endgame of this campaign, and if you’re a candidate, you’re here firing up your workers, you’re getting in your last licks, you’re making your closing argument to whoever will listen.”
The impeachment trial also could blunt the tailwind of several influential newspaper endorsements that landed last weekend. Iowa’s Quad City Times, one of the state’s biggest dailies, endorsed Klobuchar after backing Sanders in 2016; and the New York Times took the unusual step of endorsing both Klobuchar and Warren: Klobuchar as the best representative of the party’s moderate wing, and Warren as the torchbearer of the party’s progressives.
“There’s a bit of momentum underway,” said Iowa state Rep. Chris Hall of Sioux City, who had initially backed former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. “It was exciting for us to read those New York Times and Quad City Times endorsements. It was a great reflection of what we’re seeing and hearing about Senator Klobuchar.”
While Klobuchar’s hopes run first through Iowa, she’s also finding she can’t ignore other early states. A group of New Hampshire elected officials who endorsed Klobuchar held a similar news conference in Concord on Tuesday.
Patty Judge, a former Iowa lieutenant governor who’s neutral in this year’s Democratic contest, said if Klobuchar and her campaign have laid the groundwork properly, her physical absence shouldn’t sink her chances.
“Amy Klobuchar, like Warren and Sanders, they’ve all been running around this state nearly every weekend for the last year,” Judge said. “I believe if you wanted to meet Amy Klobuchar before today, you have had a chance to do that. You have most likely had the opportunity to do that more than once.”