Fresh off jumping into the 2020 presidential race, Sen. Elizabeth Warren had plans to meet voters in Las Vegas. The only problem: a government shutdown roiling Washington.
The Massachusetts Democrat had to decide whether to keep her plans in a critical early voting state or stay in Washington in case her vote was needed in the Senate to end the impasse. She ultimately decided to remain in the capital and will make up for the cancellation by visiting Las Vegas on Sunday.
The episode illustrates the challenge facing the nearly half-dozen senators running for the White House. Dysfunction in Washington makes it difficult for them to make plans. Republicans in control of the Senate are poised to force politically sensitive votes. And candidates must maintain a relentless travel schedule to build support in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada without missing a beat on Capitol Hill, where a missed vote could come back to haunt them.
“This schedule is going to be very different,” Democratic presidential contender and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said in an interview. “I’ll be working every weekend, which is just different. And that’s why this was a very important family decision that we had to spend time thinking long and hard about over the holidays.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who was his party’s 2016 vice presidential nominee, said the intensity will only grow.
“If you’re going to run, you’ve got to be very single-minded about it. And so over the long haul, it’s really a hard balancing act,” he said. “I didn’t run for a year or run for two years, but even the 105-day version of it was tough.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., signaled this week that he will make the task harder for Democratic presidential hopefuls by holding a vote on a sweeping climate change proposal known as the Green New Deal in an effort to drive a wedge between the candidates and their liberal base.
Five top-tier Democratic presidential contenders who also serve in the Senate are backing the Green New Deal. A sixth high-profile backer, Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, is likely to enter the presidential race in the coming weeks. It’s not clear whether they all will support the ambitious, still-symbolic plan when McConnell tees up a vote on it.
But before that measure comes up, they’ll have to cast a challenging vote this week on a new government funding bill with more than $1 billion for constructing new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border — less than President Donald Trump pushed for, but still more than many on the left support.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a longtime GOP leader, predicted in a recent interview that Democratic senators running for president would face a “pretty bumpy” time given that his party controls the chamber’s schedule.
“This is the job they got elected to, so they need to do their day job that the taxpayers pay them for,” Cornyn said, adding, “I assume they’re going to miss votes.”
So far, the Senate schedule has only rarely interrupted planned campaign trips for Democratic candidates, and Warren has yet to miss a Senate vote this year, according to publicly available tallies. Sanders and Sen. Kamala Harris of California have each missed one vote so far this year, while Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has missed two votes, Gillibrand has missed three and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has missed four. Another Democratic candidate, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, has missed nine House votes so far this year.
Presidential candidates can take heat for their absentee records. During the 2016 Republican primary, which featured three sitting senators, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio faced particular scrutiny for missed votes and committee hearings during his presidential bid. Then-candidate Trump derided him for “the worst voting record there is today,” and a political action committee linked to another rival ran a TV ad slamming him for the truancy.
Then-Sen. Barack Obama faced criticism for missing votes during his 2008 presidential primary against fellow Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York, Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut. The financial crisis that engulfed the country that year also forced Obama and Sen. John McCain, then the Republican presidential nominee, to return to the Senate to cast dramatic votes on a bailout of the banking system.
The balancing act was especially acute for Dodd, who spent 2007 campaigning for president and chairing the Senate Banking Committee, responsible for oversight of the looming financial crisis. He dropped out of the campaign in early 2008.
That double act required “a tremendous amount of time and juggling,” Dodd said in a recent interview. When it came to his voting attendance, he recalled, “I tried to be careful about it. You leave yourself very vulnerable with your constituents back home if you’re not careful.”
“On several occasions” during the 2008 campaign, Dodd added, he shared charter flights with his longtime friend Biden when more front-running candidates had their own aircraft.
But if Biden joins the packed primary field for 2020, running from outside the Senate for the first time, he won’t need to share.