WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and filmmaker Michael Moore held a rally in Iowa City for Bernie Sanders. Amy Klobuchar’s daughter, Abigail Bessler, hosted a “Hotdish House Party” in West Des Moines. And Julián Castro, a former presidential candidate himself, hit the campaign trail for Elizabeth Warren.
Political surrogates have always played a role in presidential elections, by turns lending campaigns credibility, enthusiasm and star power. Beyoncé, Jay-Z and Chance the Rapper held a concert in Cleveland for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Actor Jon Voight and singer Kid Rock campaigned with Mitt Romney in 2012. Oprah Winfrey stumped for Barack Obama in 2007.
Yet with President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial suddenly forcing the senators in the Democratic race off the campaign trail for the second week in a row, their stand-ins have become something else: the main attraction.
Three leading candidates who are hoping for strong performances in Iowa and other early states are stuck in Washington — Sanders, Warren and Klobuchar. So voters are instead attending meet-and-greets, house parties and canvass kickoffs with actors, politicians and celebrities, as well as candidates’ family members.
All three senators were back in Iowa for the weekend. But as they returned to their chamber seats for the second week of the trial Monday, their surrogates were again preparing to blanket early states.
For some candidates, ceding the spotlight has not been easy. Sanders of Vermont has bristled at the opportunity he is missing to deliver his closing argument himself.
“To be very honest with you, a month ago — a couple of weeks ago — I would not have told you that I would be spending the last week of the campaign in Washington, D.C.,” Sanders said at a stop in Perry on Sunday, during a frenzied Iowa swing between impeachment trial sessions. His campaign had hoped to hold 20 to 30 events in the last week before the caucuses, but, he rued, “That is not going to be the case.”
Many of the surrogates, on the other hand, have relished their elevated roles.
Bessler, Klobuchar’s 24-year-old daughter, hosted a house party Thursday for supporters at a private home. Standing in a carpeted living room, she relayed many of Klobuchar’s talking points, including that her mother had visited all 99 counties in the state — a particular point of pride.
“If you’ve been following any of the national news, you’ll know that my mom has a bit of a scheduling conflict,” Bessler said. “So she’s there but I’m here.”
In a brief interview afterward, as guests ate hot dish cooked using Klobuchar’s recipe, Bessler said she was “equipped as I’ll ever be” to give her mother’s closing Iowa pitch. The feedback from voters had also been encouraging.
“A lot of people have said that my gestures are very similar to my mom’s when I talk, so that’s always good,” she said.
Castro, who along with his twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, campaigned for Warren in Iowa last week, said he had met “a lot of people that I didn’t necessarily get to meet when I was running.”
He acknowledged that some of the people who came to hear him speak would have preferred to see Warren there, too. But he said he was “having a good time” and marveled at the energy and enthusiasm he had observed. He will continue campaigning for the Massachusetts senator in Iowa this week.
There are celebrity surrogates, too. Jonathan Van Ness, a host of “Queer Eye,” campaigned for Warren in Iowa City then joined her for selfies at a town hall in Cedar Rapids. Ashley Judd, the actress and activist, held meet and greets for Warren in New Hampshire. Phill Drobnick, a Minnesotan who coached the Olympic gold medal-winning men’s curling team in 2018, visited with the Des Moines Curling Club on Friday on behalf of Klobuchar.
Candidates who aren’t confined to Washington have deployed surrogates on the trail as well. Actress Mandy Moore recently campaigned with Pete Buttigieg. Joe Biden has a cast of political proxies, including Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, and Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, both of whom flipped their districts in 2018.
The flurry of surrogate activity has made candidate schedules at times read more like listings for “Celebrity Deathmatch” than the final days of an intense campaign.
It has also led to some good-natured surrogate-to-surrogate heckling.
“Hey @AOC, see ya on the trail in Iowa!,” Drobnick tweeted last Wednesday. “If we cross paths I’d be happy to explain to ya why #AmyForAmerica is the best candidate to beat the POTUS in November.”
Several voters seemed to have embraced these substitute campaigners.
“We all get to see all the candidates a ton, so seeing how many people show up for this when Amy’s not here is a very good sign,” said JB Conlin, 51, of West Des Moines, who came to the hot dish event hosted by Klobuchar’s daughter.
With the senators back in Washington, proxies prepared to pick up the slack again. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, the founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, hit the trail for Sanders for a series of ice cream socials in Iowa. Jane Sanders, Sanders’ wife, is also expected to campaign for him in Iowa this week. Judd will be back in New Hampshire for Warren on Tuesday. Bruce Mann, Warren’s husband, and her golden retriever, Bailey, will swing through Iowa for her Wednesday.
Still, surrogates don’t bring the same thrill as seeing a candidate in person, and Buttigieg and Biden — unbound from the duties of the Senate — have been working hard to press their advantage in Iowa. Buttigieg has already scheduled more than 20 events in the state before caucus day. Biden has embarked on a “Soul of the Nation” Iowa bus tour. Andrew Yang, a former business executive who is polling lower, is on his own 17-day bus tour.
In Iowa over the weekend, senators expressed gratitude for their surrogates — but also urged them to continue.
Sanders said he was depending on his surrogates to “carry the ball forward over the finish line.”
Klobuchar went further: She enlisted her supporters.
“One of the messages to the people here in Ames,” she said at an event Sunday, “is that I need them to run for me — I can’t be in every town like I thought I was going to be.”