Washington loves a blockbuster hearing, and the Democratic Party loves a breakout star. Thanks to the Trump White House, there’s been plenty of each.
As a result of the high-profile nomination hearings and the nationally televised Trump-Russia inquisitions last week, the early months of the Trump administration are reshaping the Democratic pecking order, with a hyper-attentive party base seemingly elevating — and celebrating — a new standard-bearer every week.
California Sen. Kamala Harris had the latest star turn last week, with her tough interrogation of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers and questioning of former FBI Director James Comey. Before that, it was Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, whose revealing cross-examination of Attorney General Jeff Sessions sparked a boomlet of fresh presidential speculation earlier this year. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner has seen his work on the Senate Intelligence Committee suddenly revive talk of his national prospects, which had faded after he laid the groundwork roughly a decade ago.
“All these investigations and issues that the country is going through are bad for the country on the one hand,” said longtime Democratic strategist Maria Cardona. “But one of the silver linings is that you have folks who are serious and true public servants [who would otherwise] be toiling in the dark. [It] gives them a higher profile, it gives people a chance to look at the difference between them and someone like Donald Trump.”
“I can’t remember anything like it,” she added.
Televised congressional hearings have long served as springboards for ambitious members, but rarely have so many benefited at one time. One obvious reason: rarely has the Democratic grassroots been as animated as in the early months of the Trump administration. It’s not just television exposure that’s creating and advancing the new celebrities — it’s also the viral clips of their performances that are burning through social media on the left.
“The base is very fired up and unified against Trump, so anytime an elected official can stand up to Trump and get noticed for doing so, [he or she] will benefit from that,” said Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin, who worked for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
The beneficiaries of the surge in attention aren’t limited to members of the key committees on the Trump beat — the Intelligence and Judiciary panels. First-term Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, for example, has been especially active in speaking out about the Russia probes and on immigration, leading to reports that the White House is now eying him as a potential 2020 opponent.
Yet it’s the former prosecutors Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and California Rep. Adam Schiff who have been front-and-center in harnessing the party’s fury, largely because they’ve been the ones in the televised spotlight.
Harris, a member of the Intelligence Committee, drew headlines in part for her questioning of Coats, Rogers, and Comey, but much of the attention focused on her Wednesday dust-up with North Carolina GOP Sen. Richard Burr, the committee chairman, before she spent Thursday’s hearing starting to build a case against Sessions.
After Burr cut her off and admonished her to be more “courteous” in her questioning of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the Democratic Party’s political machinery pounced. Within hours, both Harris’ campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee were out with fundraising emails. “These attempts to stop strong women leaders from seeking out justice is all too familiar,” read the DSCC’s missive, “and we’re not going to tolerate it anymore.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted her support of Harris, drawing a parallel to her own run-in with Republican leaders who shut down her opposition to Sessions in February. And, in a sign of how the moment broke through even to non-political audiences, it quickly became a topic of discussion on talk shows like ABC’s The View. The next day, Harris was booked on the Today Show on NBC.
Harris, in her first year in the Senate, has insisted she’s not looking at running for president. But another increasingly frequent television presence has been less circumspect: Klobuchar went so far as to visit Iowa last month for a pair of events with local Democrats.
The Minnesota senator has used her perch on the Judiciary Committee to become one of the party’s leading voices about Russian involvement in elections. She has flown to Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states in a trip framed as a response to Russian aggression. And shortly after returning, she joined three other Democratic senators in introducing a bill to create an independent nonpartisan commission to investigate Russia’s interference in 2016’s election.
As for Schiff, who has become the face of the investigations in the House as he regularly sits for cable news interviews, appears in hearings, and holds press conferences, his star is on the rise back in California.
Hardly a nationwide political star before this year, Schiff recently introduced Warren at a book event in Los Angeles last month before delivering the high-profile address at his state’s party convention. Now, he’s near the top of most lists of potential 2018 Senate contenders if Sen. Dianne Feinstein retires.
All of it is represents a break from the past, when those with an eye on national office often had to toil for years building a legislative record, a national fundraising base and broad name recognition. And the downside risk is that ascendant Democrats could appear to be putting politics over the economic issues that polls show matter most to average Americans.
“Democrats who just put their head down and focus on asking tough questions — on getting to the bottom of the Russia investigation and getting answers — are inevitably going to help themselves because the public clearly wants answers,” said party operative Adam Hodge. “Where they will be rewarded, if there is a reward out of any of this, is if they ask the tough questions, ask the right questions."
The fundraising potential of the prominent anti-Trump positioning is undeniably one of the rewards. Shortly after Comey finished talking on Thursday, Murphy sent his supporters a fundraising email titled, “President Trump should testify next.”
Two other potential 2020 candidates followed with their own appeals: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s note was titled, “The president is not above the law,” and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s read, “We must get to the bottom of this.”