WASHINGTON — Republicans are targeting Elizabeth Warren as a liberal supervillain on the national stage, hoping to turn her into political kryptonite for Democratic candidates for Congress and tarnish her appeal in advance of a potential 2020 presidential bid.
Never mind that Warren does not yet have a formidable 2018 challenger for her Senate seat. Over the years, former president Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, and the late Massachusetts senator Edward M. Kennedy have all played the role of premier liberal bogeyman for the GOP.
Now it’s Warren’s turn.
She is the Democratic Party’s hottest star, with a profile rising in the vacuum left by the party’s 2016 defeats. With legitimate populist credentials, Warren, if she chooses to run for president, could represent a strong threat to President Trump’s 2020 reelection, which is likely to hinge again on his ability to woo working-class, white voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
The Republican barrage represents a major test of Warren’s ability to withstand such intense fire, the predictable attacks that she has said influenced her decision to stay out of the 2016 presidential race. She has repeatedly denied she is eyeing a 2020 presidential run.
A leading GOP super PAC is tracking Warren’s every media appearance, compiling a dossier of opposition research, and blasting out rapid-fire press releases and social media posts whenever it sees an opening to counter her message. Other GOP campaign operations have created cookie-cutter ads with Warren’s image for candidates around the country, to tie the Massachusetts liberal to that particular state’s Democratic candidate.
The Republican National Committee is among those using Warren’s image and words in negative advertising campaigns targeting vulnerable Democrats in states where Trump performed well during the 2016 election.
“She represents that hyper-partisan, that temper tantrum that the left has had since Donald Trump won,” said Rick Gorka, who oversees the RNC’s regional communication efforts, including for the 2018 election, much of which are featuring Warren.
Warren’s message and rhetoric “turns off independent voters and fires up our base,” he said.
President Trump is doing his part to present Warren as the face of the Democrats and then attempt to tear her down, predicting he might be squaring off against her in 2020.
“It may be Pocahontas, remember that,” Trump said late last week, reviving his racist nickname for Warren, prompting laughter and loud applause during a speech to the National Rifle Association.
Warren dismissed the salvo, without responding directly to Trump’s bigoted reference to Warren’s claim of partial Native American heritage, which she has based on family lore.
“I think these attacks are silly and pretty sad,” Warren said in an interview Wednesday, sounding on the verge of laughter.
“I’m working to stand up to the president and call out Republicans when they try to do things like rip health care away from millions of working people,” she said.
But where she can, she is working with Republicans, too, Warren said. She pointed to legislation she has cosponsored with Republican Senators Chuck Grassley of Iowa (making hearing aids available over-the-counter), John McCain of Arizona (breaking up big banks), and Marco Rubio of Florida (cut off banking access for human traffickers).
“I think that’s what people expect us to focus on: how to make their lives better, not on lame political attacks to try to score political points,” Warren said.
As for Trump’s recent comments about her: “I’m not going to respond to every slur or 3 a.m. tweet that he tosses out,” Warren said. “You know, Donald Trump is the master of distraction. I’m not focused on what Donald Trump is saying. I’m focused on what he is doing.”
The GOP urgently needs a Democratic target, given Trump’s unpopularity and his ability to incite new levels of outrage — and energy — on the left. It’s a well-worn political playbook: Caricature a leading member of the opposing party, and use that person to animate the base of loyal voters to write big checks and show up on Election Day, plus scare away swing voters.
Democrats say their opponents are wasting their time trying to turn Warren into the next Pelosi, Clinton, or Kennedy. They cite her ability to rev up grass-roots enthusiasm.
In Missouri, Warren was embraced enthusiastically by Jason Kander during his 2016 Senate challenge to GOP incumbent Roy Blunt. Kander’s campaign manager, Abe Rakov, said Warren’s October rally with Kander sparked levels of excitement he hadn’t seen in the state since Obama’s 2008 campaign: They had to turn away hundreds from the event, media outlets drove from hours away to cover it, and volunteering and fund-raising jumped afterward.
“It just sort of really activated the state,” and not just diehard Democrats, he said, though Kander ultimately lost.
“Republicans are overplaying their hand on this. From what we saw in Missouri, if Republicans really want to elevate Senator Warren, I think they should go for it. I think it will help the Democratic Party as a whole,” Rakov said.
In a more recent example of Warren’s potential appeal, Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan — a state Trump narrowly won — had Warren headline a small-dollar fund-raiser for her in Detroit. At $25 a head, more than 900 people showed up, far more than the couple hundred that were expected.
Despite Warren’s denials of White House aspirations, the moves she is making have strategists on both sides of the aisle convinced it’s a real possibility. The timing of her latest book, “This Fight is Our Fight,” and the book tour echo the early groundwork Hillary Clinton laid for her 2016 run.
And, of course, she is a fund-raising juggernaut — both for herself, raising more money than any other senator in the first three months of 2017, and for others.
To mark Trump’s first 100 days in office, Gorka’s RNC team created graphics for campaigns against a dozen Democrats they see as vulnerable, including Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana. In each, a grainy photo of Warren looms over the target lawmaker’s right shoulder. To the left is Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
“100 Days of Obstruction,” the graphics blare, declaring the targeted lawmaker “stands with his party and their petty obstructionist tactics.”
The images were sent to state Republican Party organizations to use on Twitter and Facebook and in e-mails.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the GOP’s Senate campaign arm, is banking on Warren’s liberal credentials to scare voters away from at-risk Senate Democrats in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Montana, among others. It blasted several of the targeted Democrats for accepting campaign contributions from Warren’s so-called leadership PAC.
“These Red State Democrats’ voting records align more with Elizabeth Warren than the beliefs of the hard-working people of their states,” said the committee’s communications director, Katie Martin.
America Rising PAC, a leading conservative research group, is giving Warren the same aggressive treatment it gave Clinton when Clinton went on a book tour in 2014.
Colin Reed, America Rising’s executive director, said he had Warren’s book release date circled on the group’s calendar because the group views it as the “soft launch” of her presidential bid. He sent reporters a memo detailing an “Elizabeth Warren Initiative” ahead of the book’s publication. The effort includes building up a fat opposition file on her, tracking her events and media appearances, and sparking as many negative media narratives about her as possible.
As Warren traveled the country promoting her book, the group mocked her for fumbling questions about her presidential ambitions, put out a list of “flip-flops” in her book, and pounced on critical comments she made in several interviews about Obama.