WASHINGTON — If you believe the ads and talking points that top Republican groups pump out, Senator Elizabeth Warren is a liberal from Massachusetts who can’t be trusted, an extremist whose positions won’t yield, a politician who lied about her heritage to advance her career.
But inside the halls of the Capitol, a curious political phenomenon has unfolded over the past several months. Conservative Republicans are touting their ability to work across the aisle with Warren, one of the right’s most hated liberals and the one whom President Trump derisively calls “Pocahontas.”
“I work with Elizabeth Warren,” proclaimed Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia at an event at the University of Virginia in November, pointing to an opioid bill the two worked on together that became law.
“A lot of people say bipartisanship doesn’t happen here,” Senator Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, said in a video he posted to Twitter in December, describing how he and Warren are “on the same page when it comes to protecting our men and women in uniform and our veterans.”
How about former GOP presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, senator from Florida? He emphasized last month that he’s cosponsored several measures with Warren aimed at stopping human trafficking. Or Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa conservative who drew national attention for her talk of castrating hogs during her 2014 campaign? She’s highlighted her work with Warren on securing a pay increase for members of the military.
And just last week, GOP Senator Todd Young of Indiana and Warren put out a joint press release trumpeting new legislation they’ve written to prod federal agencies to adopt money-saving recommendations.
That lawmakers from mostly conservative states are trying to use Warren to showcase their bipartisan bona fides is one sign of a shift from recent years when party activists turned congressional compromise into a dirty word. It also stands in sharp contrast to how much of the rest of the Republican Party apparatus treats the senior senator from Massachusetts.
National party leaders have worked over the past year to turn her into a liberal supervillain, a role they say helps them raise gobs of money and energy from their core voters around the country and allows them to tarnish vulnerable Democrats among swing voters, by association. They also want to damage her as much as possible in advance of a possible 2020 run for president.
“She is a deeply polarizing figure,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Mitt Romney. Warren ranked 88th for her level of bipartisanship, out of 98 senators (top party leaders were not counted) during last Congress, according to an index created by the Lugar Center and Georgetown University.
Her style also makes her divisive, Williams added. “As a politician, she doesn’t articulate a positive vision for the Democrats’ agenda. She spends most of her time grandstanding and attacking others.”
Republican campaign operations have featured Warren’s image and words in ad campaigns aimed at Democrats up for reelection this year in states Trump won such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Montana. It’s a strategy the party will continue to deploy in the run-up to Election Day, officials said.
Republican operatives insist there’s no hypocrisy in some lawmakers promoting their work with Warren, while the rest of the party slams her as an extreme, out-of-touch East Coast liberal. Her very notoriety makes her a logical example to use. Bragging about co-sponsoring a bill with a less well-known liberal —
“It shows that some members of the Republican caucus are able to reach out to one of the more extreme radical Democrats and work on small things,” Williams said.
These Republicans also argue that Warren’s bipartisan accomplishments don’t lessen her toxic reputation. These bipartisan bills are minor compared with the big issues facing the country, they say.
She’s no Ted Kennedy, who accomplished major policy feats such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program through his deep relationships with Republican colleagues, said Williams.
“She’s someone who relishes in being a partisan flamethrower. That’s what she ran as in 2012. That’s what her M.O. in the Senate has been,” said Colin Reed, executive director of America Rising, a Republican opposition-research super PAC that has targeted Warren and her potential 2020 ambitions. “I just don’t think anyone is going to be fooled, there’s already so much stuff out there to publicly and effectively paint her” as an extreme liberal, he said.
Warren counters that she hasn’t opposed Republicans on big issues such as health care and tax reform out of political motivation. “This isn’t about partisanship. It’s about passion,” she said in an interview.
Asked what she thinks of her Republican colleagues touting their work with her in other areas, Warren declared it “great.”
“Every place that I can find an overlap with a Republican that will help us move forward a good idea, then I’m all in,” she said.
But she also ticked off some of the ways she disagrees with the Republican Party, including the tax bill and attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“It makes the American government work great for those at the top and leaves everyone else behind. I’m in Washington to fight those fights, not to take a back seat,” she said. “I have not helped Republicans give away a trillion and half dollars to giant corporations, I have not helped Republicans knock 25 million Americans off health care, and I won’t.”
The Republicans who’ve worked with Warren seem more focused on proving to their constituents that Washington isn’t as broken as it appears in newsprint and on television. That impulse may reflect polls that show frustrated voters with a historically low opinion of Congress, including Republican voters disappointed with the lack of accomplishments produced by a government controlled by their party.
A majority of Americans, 54 percent, want their political leaders in Washington to compromise to get things done, including 44 percent of Republicans, according to a recent Gallup poll on the issue, released this fall. Just 18 percent of those surveyed said they wanted leaders to stick to principles even if that means little gets done — a new low, Gallup said.
“People of polar opposite political philosophies can actually come together and find some common ground,” said Texas Republican John Cornyn, No. 2 in the GOP Senate leadership and co-author of legislation with Warren to make it easier for veterans to obtain commercial drivers’ licenses that became law. He and Warren are working on a second bill together, he said, a fact he imagines “will shock and amaze people.”
The senators expect to introduce their bill, which aims to block companies from controversial “forum shopping” — selecting a court that favors them, at the expense of local communities where they operate — when filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, on Monday, said a Warren aide.
Cornyn has been one of Warren’s harsher critics in the Senate, criticizing her tone and statements on the chamber floor. “This is not supposed to be a mud-wrestling ring or a food fight,” he said of her after she was formally censured for statements she read criticizing Jeff Sessions during debate on his nomination to be attorney general.
Working with Warren hasn’t changed his opinion of her as a partisan warrior, Cornyn said in an interview. “She is that, but she’s also practical enough to realize that the only way things get done around here is bipartisanship, and I applaud her for that.”
Tillis said he was inspired to post his video talking about his collaboration with Warren after a reporter witnessed a friendly exchange between the two lawmakers discussing their plans to work together on specific items related to improving treatment of traumatic brain injuries among service members. The reporter was surprised, said Tillis in an interview.
“I’ll work with anybody who cares about military families . . . and she’s proven that that’s something that’s important to her,” Tillis said of Warren, adding that the two have also teamed up to write legislation to address bad lending practices targeting military members.
“That’s the untold story around here, the number of times on any given day that on veterans issues, on military families, and other issues that we are working together. . . . I think there are people out there that really need to understand that that happens.”Victoria McGrane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.