WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — To understand the challenge facing Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats as they chart a path out of their Trump nightmare, you can’t do much better than to spend a few minutes with the amiable fellow in a diner booth in blue-collar Pennsylvania, as he tucks into a plate of eggs-over-easy and sausage and ponders Donald Trump.
John Randazzo is a registered Democrat who twice voted for Barack Obama, whose 2008 visit to the Avenue Diner near Wilkes-Barre is memorialized with a plaque and a special red stool at the counter. In 2016, Randazzo was among Rust Belt defectors who helped put Trump in the White House — the sort of voter who prompted the president to boast last month that he was giving the GOP a rebirth as the “party . . . of the American worker.’’
“I honestly feel that he’s thinking like the average American right now, what he wants to get done,” said Randazzo, 70, a retired hydraulics company manager who has watched the quality of life here slip as the decades passed. “I’m on board. I know he’s trying hard.”
He doesn’t think much of the Democrats clamoring to win voters like him back.
Asked about Warren, Randazzo suggested that the Massachusetts senator, who is arguably the Democrats’ highest-profile advocate for the working class, is out of touch and lumped her in the same category as the entrenched House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi.
“Her and Pelosi, they’ll never get my vote the way they’re acting,” said Randazzo. “They are completely the opposite of what Donald Trump stands for. He says one thing, they disagree and it’s the other thing, and it’s ridiculous.”
Many Democrats believe Warren, who has emerged as a leader of Trump opposition, is their best emissary to win back 2016’s “Trump Democrats” — and that she may even be the one to take on Trump in 2020. There is certainly some evidence to support that notion in the Rust Belt.
“Love her. Love her. Love. Her,” said Cindy Lefko, 57, branch manager at a bank in downtown Wilkes-Barre, who has lived in the area all her life and thinks the Massachusetts senator would “absolutely” help Democrats here. “She stands for everything that I think the Democratic Party should stand for.”
The political narrative about Warren is paradoxical: Republicans see her as a liberal albatross they can tie around the neck of the entire Democratic Party. The Senate GOP is pumping out ads targeting Democrats up for reelection in states Trump won by saying they’re in lockstep with the liberal Warren, not “the hard-working people of their states,” as National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Katie Martin put it.
Trump himself — mocking Warren’s claims of partial Native American ancestry — reportedly taunted red-state Democrats visiting the White House that “Pocahontas is now the face of your party.”
The tug-of-war over Warren underscores the dueling halves of her resume. She hails from deep-blue Massachusetts and worked in the loftiest of all ivory towers, Harvard Law School, before she ran for the Senate.
But she grew up in conservative Oklahoma in a family that struggled financially after her father had a heart attack, an upbringing she credits with inspiring her career-long focus on what she calls “leveling the playing field” for middle-class families.
There’s a third facet to the Warren picture, one that presents an opportunity and a risk. Polls show that roughly a third of voters don’t really even know who she is, meaning there is room to grow the numbers of her admirers but also room for her critics to build on their negative portrait.
“I’m not familiar with the name,” said Maureen Snyder, a nurse who voted for Hillary Clinton, as she picked up her lunch in a downtown Wilkes-Barre deli. More than a dozen interviews found few who had much to say about Warren.
A March 7 Suffolk University/USA Today poll showed Warren was viewed favorably by 34 percent of respondents; an equal number viewed her unfavorably. Thirty-two percent said they either hadn’t heard of her or didn’t know enough to say. By contrast, only 8 percent of people in the poll said they didn’t know how they felt about Trump. Forty-seven percent had a negative view of him.
For Warren to help Democrats wrest back control of government from the GOP, many believe they will need to figure out how to win back voters like Randazzo, who lives in Luzerne County, which straddles a long stretch of the Susquehanna River. Obama won this county by five points in 2012 and nine points in 2008. This past November, Trump crushed Clinton here by 20 points.
Warren thinks that Trump is hoodwinking everyday Americans and that his first months in the White House have proven it.
“Talk is cheap,” said Warren, bristling at Trump’s claim on working-class voters during an interview. She pointed to Trump’s Cabinet nominations such as Jeff Sessions for attorney general, who is currently embroiled in a controversy over whether he lied in his confirmation hearings about contact with Russian officials; Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a former Wall Street banker; and fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, who withdrew his nomination for secretary of labor after sustained criticism about his poor treatment of workers, among other issues.
These people, in her opinion, represent corporate interests, not average citizens. “Trump’s actions are what matters, not the words,” she said.
Warren continues to be Trump’s chief Twitter attacker, though he hasn’t been returning fire as he did during the campaign. She’s been at the forefront of opposition to Trump’s most controversial nominees. Her criticism of Sessions’ record of civil rights earned her a high-profile moment in the national spotlight after GOP leaders formally silenced her for breaking Senate rules.
Not all Democrats believe Warren can appeal to working-class voters outside of true-blue coastal bastions and among urban and campus elites. Former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, said Warren’s words on their own would resonate with Trump Democrats, but she herself is seen as too liberal and too associated with the type of identity politics that turns off white, working-class voters.
“Her message is a good one, there’s no question about it, she’s very good at attacking and stripping back the hypocrisy,” he said. “I’m not sure she’s the best messenger for that type of voter.”
Warren resonates particularly well with female working-class voters, a subset that should be a priority for Democrats to win back, said Celinda Lake, an influential Democratic pollster. Warren ticks other items off Democrats’ must-do list, too: She energizes the base, and she has an “unparalleled” ability to explain the intricacies of the economy and how it all relates to real people’s lives, Lake said, arguing that Democrats would be smart to make Warren a prominent part of their messaging strategy.
“She will be, I think, one of the point people on so many of the debates that are going to come up,” she said.
Plenty of Democrats, both in Washington and out in middle America, see her as a populist gladiator, not a generic Massachusetts liberal. Warren has been an outspoken critic on trade deals, an issue that helped Trump, several local Democratic leaders noted in interviews.
“She’s a warrior,” said David Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party in a struggling swath of Ohio’s Rust Belt, where scores of once-proud Democrats cast ballots for Trump. They did so, Betras said, “because he was a disrupter and he was antiestablishment. Elizabeth Warren has been a disrupter her whole life.”
But so far on the industrial banks of the Susquehanna, Trump is retaining his legions of fans.
Trump is trying hard, was a refrain uttered again and again by his supporters here, including Bob Smith, a 64-year-old roofing contractor. He is in five to 10 homes a day for his work, and in those visits the Republican said he’s detected a new level of optimism even in what he describes as a “depressed area.”
“For the first time in a lot of years, people have hope that things are going to turn around and things are going to get better,” said Smith.
“Do I believe that he’s going to be able to get everything done? No, but at least he’s in the right direction,” said Gary Polakoski, a retired foreman with the state transportation department. A registered Republican, Polakoski is a lifelong union member and considers himself a middle-of-the-road voter who likes that Trump is “not a real Republican.” He mimed holding his nose when describing his vote for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012.
Polakoski praised Trump’s plans to invest in infrastructure and his promises to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. The president, he notes, “is getting a lot of push-back from the establishment on both sides, the globalists who think the world is better by making things overseas, because they make more money.”
“If he does a quarter of what he sets off to do,” Polakoski started.
“It will be good,” finished his friend Albert Mrackoski, 75, who also voted for Trump.
Even some who voted for Clinton said they wanted to see what Trump could get done. “He’s our elected president,” said Snyder, the nurse. “It’s time to settle down and work rationally and professionally. Unless he does something so wrong that he gets impeached, make the best of what we have.”
There are other challenges, for Warren and Democrats more broadly, in appealing to working class voters.
Some Democrats argue that Trump’s appeal to white working class voters is rooted in more than his claim to offer hope to the discouraged blue-collar ranks. They say his success cannot be separated from the xenophobia and racism they say is threaded throughout his words and policies.
Mary Christopher is hoping Warren runs for president, but she is alert to the racial undercurrents that help drive some of Trump’s support.
“That’s my lady! She’s got the oompf and she’s got the power. When she talks, everybody listens,” exclaimed the 76-year-old African-American during her shift in the kitchen of a local senior center in Wilkes-Barre. “She needs to run. She has a strong voice. She makes you know that she is for you.”
Still, Christopher doesn’t think Warren would do well against Trump in this area. She offered a blunt summary for why she thinks Trump did so well: “This area is very racist.”