Massachusetts voters should be forgiven if in the weeks ahead they start believing the calendar reads 2020 instead of 2018.
Elizabeth Warren says — and then says it again — that she’s focused on winning a second term in the Senate. But while she glad-hands in Plymouth and Pittsfield, Warren is also running a shadow national campaign that has all the appearances of a future presidential run.
It’s a factor that Republicans, including Warren’s opponent, Geoff Diehl, an ardent Trump backer, plan to capitalize on aggressively in a bid to raise questions about Warren’s commitment to Massachusetts voters. And Democrats, for their part, are eager to draw the connection between the new GOP nominee and the president.
“This is a proxy fight between Donald Trump and Elizabeth Warren,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Boston, of the Senate race.
The state Democratic Party wasted no time in drawing the connection for Massachusetts voters, who polls show harbor a deep dislike for Trump. “A vote for Geoff Diehl is a vote for Donald Trump,” Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford said after the primary was called for the Whitman Republican.
Diehl, meanwhile, is making the alleged presidential hopes of his Democratic opponent the centerpiece of his pitch to voters. Warren is more focused on raising her national profile for her 2020 White House run than responding to the concerns of Massachusetts voters, Diehl said in an interview Thursday with the Globe.
“Elizabeth Warren is going to try to talk about the president from here to Nov. 6,” he said. Voters, on the other hand, “are saying ‘Look, I want someone who is going to have a seat at the table in a way that Senator Warren is never going to be able to have,’ ” because she only wants to obstruct Republicans and the administration, not try to find ways to work with them, he said.
In a Wednesday phone interview, Warren didn’t refer to her opponent directly when asked what she thought about Diehl and his support of the president.
“I think this election is about who government works for. Does it work for the wealthy and the well-connected or does it work for the people? I fight for a government that works for everyone,” she said.
Independent candidate Shiva Ayyadurai will also be on the ballot in November.
Trump so far has been silent on Warren since Diehl won the primary (it’s been busy in Washington, D.C.). And Diehl, while a steadfast supporter of the president, doesn’t go out of his way to talk about Trump; he didn’t mention the president in his victory speech.
But Diehl also doesn’t hesitate to talk about the president when asked. And on the campaign trail, Diehl has mobilized Maine Governor Paul R. LePage, an ardent Trump backer; former Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore; and former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, who delivered a passionate defense of Trump during a Diehl event last month.
On paper, it might seem like Trump and other national Republicans, along with the rest of the country, would ignore this race. In blue-state Massachusetts, Warren has more than $15 million in the bank, and early polls showed her with a more than 20-point gap over Diehl (although those surveys also showed relatively few voters knew who any of the Republican candidates were).
There are many more competitive races in the 2018 midterm election cycle on which the balance of the Senate, and control of Congress, rest than a seat that has long been held by a Democrat, with the exception of former senator Scott Brown’s three-year stint.
As for plans beyond Massachusetts, Warren has said repeatedly that she’s focused on her reelection and is not running for president. But her national moves indicate otherwise: Warren has been fund-raising for candidates across the country, including in key primary states, and she’s engaged in deliberate outreach to the party’s key constituencies like African-American voters. Two of her aides recently decamped to the Democratic Party in New Hampshire, home of the first-in-the-nation primary, and she recently started warming up to the national press corps by offering more access.
But despite Warren’s repeated denials that she wants a shot at the White House, the political world believes she is positioning herself for a run. That means political prognosticators will be watching the race for portents about her 2020 viability.
And Republicans across the country will be looking to damage her prospects. Partisan opposition research firms are pointing out any inconsistencies in her record, and Republicans are quick to paint her as a “far left leader.”
Warren “is in for a lot of flak,” said Peter N. Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College. “Republicans are going to be testing out some themes that they want to use against her if she runs for president.”
America Rising, a Republican opposition research super PAC, has made Warren one of the top targets of its “2020 Initiative” launched this summer, which is focused on finding and disseminating unflattering information on potential Democratic primary candidates.
“We are all in on tracking her this cycle” and into 2020, said Sarah Dolan, America Rising’s communications director. In Warren’s reelection campaign, “She’s going to have to be out there doing press and meeting with constituents. It definitely helps us keep an eye on her.”
As Bay State voters headed to the polls on Tuesday, the Republican National Committee blasted out a memo to reporters seeking to reignite controversy surrounding Warren’s claims of Native American heritage, which the senator sought to lay to rest in recent days by releasing new documents and discussing the issue with the Globe.
Warren, in the interview with the Globe, reiterated a call she made last year to revive the “people’s pledge” banning third-party political groups from spending money in the race. She signed a similar pact with Brown in 2012.
“Every campaign ad should carry the name of the candidate who takes responsibility for what gets said in those ads,” said Warren. “I’m willing to sign it, and I hope he will too.”
Diehl said he’d agree just as soon as she liquidated her campaign account, which has been bolstered by out-of-state donors. “If she wants to tell outside forces to stop spending money on this race [and] get rid of millions that she’s collected from outside the state, then we can talk,” he said.
Some are skeptical big GOP donors and PACs will pour resources into Massachusetts when their dollars could make a bigger difference elsewhere.
Republicans face a tough challenge winning national office in Massachusetts under normal circumstances, and Trump’s unpopularity makes it even harder this year, said Colin Reed, a Republican strategist and senior vice president at Definers Public Affairs.
“It’s just really challenging right now to be running as a Republican in a blue part of the country,” Reed said.