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Vulnerable Democratic senators jab Elizabeth Warren on campaign trail

Senator Claire McCaskill, on the campaign trail in Sikeston, Mo., chided her Democratic colleague Elizabeth Warren over their differences on bank regulation. Brandon Dill/New York Times/file

WASHINGTON — Two Democratic senators in tough reelection races distanced themselves from Senator Elizabeth Warren on the campaign trail on Monday, a preview of the challenges the liberal firebrand is likely to face uniting her party in 2020 should she decide to run for president.

The comments from the two red-state lawmakers ahead of Election Day also illustrate how the Massachusetts senator has become something of a political pinata for moderate Democrats trying to show their independence from the liberal resistance wing of the party. Republicans have painted her as an extreme liberal, pasting her image next to moderate Democrats’ faces in political ads to tie the candidate to the left.

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Vulnerable Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill pointed the finger at her colleague Monday when asked to identify the “crazy Democrats” she had referred to in a radio ad as politicians she had little in common with. McCaskill has been running as an independent-minded moderate not beholden to the Democratic Party in Missouri, a state that gave Donald Trump a double-digit win in 2016.

“Well, I would say this,” McCaskill said in an interview on Fox News Monday. “I would not call my colleagues crazy, but Elizabeth Warren sure went after me when I advocated tooling back some of the regulations for small banks and credit unions.”

Out West, Montana Senator Jon Tester of Montana took a swipe at Warren’s recent DNA test that showed evidence she had a distant Native American ancestor. Tester told a Hill reporter while at a voter turnout event with the Chippewa Cree tribe Monday that he didn’t believe she had proven her ties to Native American ancestry.

“I don’t think that would pass the test, no,” he told the Hill. “That’s a fight between her and Trump and she can continue to have that fight. The real issue here are the challenges in Indian country, especially the tribes that don’t have gaming.”

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Both senators are in the fight of their political lives to hang onto their seats in states where distance from Warren could help their chances.

Warren has singled out Tester and McCaskill in the past as well, when she criticized the 16 Democrats who voted to ease regulations on some financial institutions in a fund-raising e-mail and on social media in March. That move kicked up tensions within the party, but red-state Senate Democrats largely refrained from criticizing Warren in public.

Part of that may be due to Warren’s prolific fund-raising for her colleagues. In 2018, Warren’s PAC donated $10,000 each to Tester and McCaskill, in addition to $60,000 to Missouri’s Democratic Party. She’s also sent fund-raising e-mails on the senators’ behalf. In one sent in April, she said Tester “reminds me a lot of my big brothers back in Oklahoma,” with a “heart bigger than the state of Montana.” In 2017, she sent a fund-raising plea for McCaskill. “The Claire I know is ... Tough, smart, and focused on finding solutions to level the playing field for working families,” she wrote.

Warren declined to comment for this story through a spokeswoman.

A glimpse at some of the political ads running against Tester and McCaskill back home shows how this chummy camaraderie could have ended. McCaskill appears as a bobble-head figure surrounded by the jostling faces of Hillary Clinton, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, and Warren in one ad calling her a “Washington elite.” The Senate Republican’s campaign arm featured Tester in another ad,critical of his vote against the tax bill, placing his photograph in a lineup alongside images of Warren, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

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Despite Republicans’ portrait of Warren as a liberal supervillain, the senator placed 64th out of 98 senators in bipartisanship in 2017, according to a ranking from the Lugar Center, a jump from her 88th place the year before. She ranks as more bipartisan than other rumored 2020 hopefuls such as Sanders, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Senator Kamala Harris of California.

Senator Jon Tester, meeting with supporters in Billings, Mont., on Monday distanced himself from Warren’s disclosure that she had a Native American ancestor.Matthew Brown/Associated Press

Democrats have mostly managed to shore up the deep fissures within their own party ahead of the midterms, but the nagging questions of Democratic identity from 2016 will dog them again as they start the process of seeking their new leader after the midterms.

Warren has cast herself as a fiery, unapologetically liberal opponent to Trump, one who is unafraid of going punch for punch with the president. But Warren would need to rally her fellow Democrats around her brand of liberal populism, which is still seen as politically risky in some states.

This question of Warren’s role in 2020 already kicked up fears for some Democrats earlier this month when she released the results of her DNA test just three weeks before the crucial midterm elections. The move was widely perceived to be an effort to clear the decks of one of her political liabilities ahead of announcing a 2020 run for president. But it began a heated national debate about tribal identity and blood quantum, with Trump gleefully continuing to mock her at rallies.

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“It takes us off our message,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign manager, in an interview on MSNBC earlier this month. “I just wouldn’t do this now. Not 21 days before the election.”

Republican strategists said they saw a political boost from the announcement, which took focus away from health care and Trump and onto national Democrats.

“Any time Elizabeth Warren comes out and headlines before Election Day is a good day for us,” said Matt Gorman, communications director for the House Republicans’ campaign arm. “That was a time we saw some of our highest polling. We had a lot of momentum because Democrats took their eye off the ball and made things about 2020.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.