WASHINGTON — As Elizabeth Warren inches closer to launching a presidential campaign, a snowy-haired obstacle, a political iceberg, looms ahead.
Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist from Vermont, is seriously considering attempting a comeback run for 2020, confident that, even at age 77, he can rekindle the progressive energy that powered his insurgent campaign three years ago. And Warren appears to be close to pulling the trigger on a run: She recently sat down with members of the Massachusetts delegation individually to ask for their support should she get in the race, according to two lawmakers.
If both jump in, the result would be a very crowded left lane in the Democratic primary, with Warren competing against a man who has a proven appeal to her core constituency of liberal voters.
Sanders and Warren met in her Washington home last week to discuss this likely scenario of running against each other in the near future, according to two sources familiar with the meeting. But the senators, who are friendly with each other, stayed on safe and pleasant ground: They didn’t try to talk each other out of running for president or settle on a plan for how to handle it if they both do get into the race; instead, the two discussed climate change, income inequality, and other issues both have made a staple of their platforms, these sources said.
Left unsaid was the reality that a Sanders-Warren matchup could splinter the left, with the two cannibalizing each other’s support and leaving progressives without a clear standard bearer.
Back in 2015, Sanders was concerned about that very possibility. He worried about Warren’s potential candidacy, given the similarity of their economic message targeting corporate greed and pushing Wall Street reforms. He could breathe a little easier when efforts by progressives to draft Warren into the race failed that summer, according to an account by his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, in a recent book. After the Massachusetts senator declined to get into the race, the Sanders campaign absorbed “Run Warren Run” staffers into its operation in Iowa.
Now, people in Sanders’ orbit are projecting confidence about his chances with or without Warren in the race. They tout his millions-strong e-mail list of small donors, enthusiastic supporters who showed up this fall in swing states to hear him talk about the machinations of millionaires and billionaires, and a network of former staffers who they believe could quickly reactivate a coast-to-coast campaign apparatus for him.
“She hasn’t run a national campaign, so she doesn’t have great name ID,” Chuck Rocha, a former Sanders adviser, said of Warren. “It’s yet to be determined whether she can raise a couple hundred million dollars, which is what you’re going to need to win this race.”
Warren’s allies note she is a formidable fund-raiser in her own right, donating millions of dollars that she raised to boost Democratic candidates around the country in the 2018 midterms. She also built relationships with dozens of Democrats in swing states, offering to fund-raise for them and cut videos of support.
Some of Sanders’ supporters suggest he is in a different league as a candidate than Warren.
“Other than Joe Biden, I don’t think anybody on the field at this point has the same kind of political assets,” said another former Sanders adviser, Mark Longabaugh.
Jim Zogby, a member of the board of Sanders’ “Our Revolution” group, said Sanders “has a lane to himself” should he run.
But Warren’s allies and others believe Sanders is overestimating his appeal should he choose to run in a race crowded with fresh faces. This time, the choice won’t simply be between an establishment Democrat and an outsider running to her left. Both Sanders and Warren will likely face other liberal candidates with populist messages, from Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown to Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley. The surprising strength of Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke among progressives in early polls is also a warning sign that Sanders’ backers may be looking elsewhere for a 2020 standard-bearer.
“I think Bernie Sanders’ day has come and gone and Elizabeth Warren is going to easily eclipse him,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic political consultant based in Boston.
There’s also the issue of his age — he’ll be 79 by Election Day of 2020, compared to Warren’s 71.
After Democratic women did particularly well in House races across the country in November, Warren’s allies also hope her gender will be an asset in 2020.
“There have been plenty of white males running for president over time,” said Adam Green, cofounder of the pro-Warren Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “There’s a strong desire to have a combination of racial and gender diversity on the ticket.”
Warren, whose online reach trails only that of Sanders and Oprah Winfrey according to a recent study of that metric, has made inroads with women angry about sexism in the Trump era. When Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell attempted to silence her for speaking out of turn on the Senate floor in 2017, she and her supporters seized on the “she persisted” phrase in his lecture, turning it into a rallying cry for progressive women.
And one Warren ally argued having Sanders in the race could be a boon to her, since he would be the “lightning rod” for establishment figures who want to trash the most liberal candidate in the field.
Still, recent polls put Warren significantly behind Sanders, Biden, and O’Rourke. And progressive groups that raved about a Warren candidacy last cycle are not yet rallying around her this time around. Earlier this week, the liberal group Democracy for America released a straw poll of members showing Sanders topping the list of their favorite candidates. Warren, who led the same poll with 42 percent support in 2014, now comes in fourth, behind Biden and O’Rourke. Members of the liberal grass-roots organization MoveOn, who voted to fund a draft Warren effort in 2014, backed O’Rourke, Sanders, and Biden in a recent straw poll.
“They were stunned a little by trying to push Warren hard to run and her not running,” said Democracy for America’s executive director Charles Chamberlain, by way of explanation. “Once Warren decides to run, I bet we’ll see a jump.”
Some former Warren fans are looking elsewhere this time, however. Burt Cohen, a former state senator in New Hampshire, had a Warren sticker on his car before backing Sanders after she declined to run. He eventually became a Sanders delegate to the Democratic convention, and resented Warren staying neutral during the bruising Democratic primary. Now he says Sanders’ most fervent supporters in the state discuss Brown, Merkley, or Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii as potential candidates if Sanders doesn’t run.
“The Bernie people will not warm up to Warren,” Cohen said.
But Warren has worked to build her own distinct brand, distinguishing her message from Sanders in several ways that could allow her to appeal to a broader cross section of voters. She unveiled anticorruption legislation that would require presidential candidates to release eight years of tax returns and create a new federal office to oversee stricter rules on lobbying. She’s also positioned herself as a reformer of capitalism, rather than a democratic socialist, proposing rules to allow workers to claim up to 40 percent of seats on corporate boards.
“I am a capitalist. Come on. I believe in markets,” she said on CNBC last summer. “What I don’t believe in is theft, what I don’t believe in is cheating.”