For Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the next few months are bound to look similar. Both are wildly popular New England senators who face reelection in their home states this fall. And both are expected to cruise to victory.
But the biggest similarity may be that all this is happening against the backdrop of a much larger election prospect — the 2020 presidential race — with both focused on nurturing their national profiles and fund-raising efforts in order to best position themselves.
Still, if their goals are the same, the way they are approaching these goals is not.
For Sanders, who announced he was seeking reelection last week, the overriding focus is how he will run for president again in 2020. For Warren, the focus is back at home in Massachusetts, where she has lagged in favorability ratings and, for all of her bluster, has only won one election.
“This is a tale of two contenders who are both using their reelections to make sure they have as many options as possible, especially with 2020 around the corner,” said Democratic strategist Mary Ann Marsh.
Indeed, Sanders has been unabashed about his continued national ambitions. He has held town hall-style meetings around the country and has tried to build his national organization to keep his supporters engaged. Meanwhile, his former presidential campaign manager and close friend, Jeff Weaver, has a new book out this week that ends with the sentence: “Run, Bernie, run!”
Warren, in contrast, remains largely focused on holding town hall-style meetings in the Bay State and campaigning for local candidates up and down the ballot, especially in special elections. While Sanders has endorsed candidates in several high-profile Democratic primaries around the country in the past year, Warren has only chosen to wade in twice: backing Richard Cordray, a close ally who is running for Ohio governor, and a former student of hers who is running for Congress in California.
To be fair, the difference in outlook has a lot to do with circumstance. This is the 11th time Sanders has run statewide in Vermont (his third time for the US Senate), and he was last reelected to the Senate with 71 percent of the vote. He will run in his usual unorthodox way — by competing in the Democratic primary and then “respectfully” declining the nomination to run as an independent; even Democratic leaders give him a pass.
“Would I like it if he were to run as a Democrat? Yes. But we are used to him doing this by now, and he shares our Democratic values,” said Mary Sullivan, a Vermont Democratic National Committee member.
Indeed, as Tim Jerman, a Democratic state representative from Vermont, said of Sanders, “We are proud of him generally, and happy he has a national platform.”
Compare that to the situation Warren finds herself in amid her first reelection bid. While polls show her with large leads over her three potential Republican opponents, each of them is funded well enough to run a credible campaign. In addition, Warren is expected to get pounded later this year by super-PAC-funded television ads intended to scuff up the senator before she thinks about challenging President Trump in 2020.
“One can try to ask why Warren will be a target of Trump-friendly super PACs while Sanders is not this year, but it is happening for her, and that means she needs to pay more attention to what is happening at home,” said Marsh.
Of course, Warren and Sanders are hardly the first to try to navigate a reelection bid ahead of a potential presidential run. When Hillary Clinton sought reelection as a New York senator in 2006, she was careful never to talk about national ambitions, and limited her national travel to fund-raising efforts before she ended up running for president in 2008.
In 2002, John Kerry used his easy reelection campaign as Massachusetts senator to air significantly more television ads than necessary, hoping they would also be watched in New Hampshire, where most of the state’s residents are within the Boston media market. He also made multiple trips to the Granite State during his reelection campaign.
Warren and Sanders aren’t even the only Democrats running for reelection this year while potentially eyeing the White House. Others in the same boat are Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
However, polls in early presidential states show Warren, Sanders, and former vice president Joe Biden well ahead of the rest of the potential 2020 field, which means there will be more attention paid to how they navigate their reelection bids.
After all, if, as expected, they take the stage to claim reelection victory, their speeches will address a national audience looking to see what comes next.James Pindell can be reached at email@example.com