For a meaningless Senate contest, there’s major national significance to Warren’s reelection scrum
Nobody who even remotely follows politics expects US Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s reelection bid—her first showdown since taking office in 2013—to be awfully captivating, or even close. Our state’s senior senator in DC enjoys strong approval ratings and, perhaps more significantly, has passionate, enthusiastic supporters. Coupled with the fact that midterm elections often amount to a referendum on the sitting president—and that they tend to be kind to the party out of power—it doesn’t take a soothsayer to see that the seat’s set to safely remain in the hands of the Democrats.
But that doesn’t mean the race won’t get messy.
In many ways, Warren’s reelection campaign represents the first leg of the 2020 presidential election. Not that the senator is certain or even likely to seek higher office at this point, but whether or not she eventually makes that decision isn’t important. What’s worth watching is the perception of her as a potential top contender, one who regularly draws the wrath of the national GOP.
In the most immediate sense, Warren’s seat is one that Democrats can’t lose. Never mind the thought of beating GOP contenders up and down the board in the November elections; if the Democrats can’t manage to hold Massachusetts, whatever limited influence they still have on critical debates will be severely weakened. Because if Warren loses, it will almost surely be a symptom of a trend rattling all throughout the country.
It’s clear that Democrats have had a string of wins since the crushing defeat of 2016. They’ve won in places that defined President Donald Trump’s victory—in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, as well as in the deepest of red states, including Alabama. And they’ve consistently outpolled and outpaced Republican voters halfway through the 2018 primary process. Broadly speaking, 2018 looks good for liberals. But when it comes to the Senate, there is a factor that is completely out of the party’s control: the map.
“Over on the Senate, it’s a much narrower path,” Warren said at a recent town hall. “But it’s not a zero path. … Democrats in the [Senate] are having to defend 26 seats. … Republicans only have to defend eight. It’s just the way the calendar worked out this year. That makes it tough.”
The most daunting aspect of the map is what political wonks refer to as “The Ten,” the number of incumbent Dems running for reelection in states that went red in 2016. That will be the key defense integral to the party’s slim chance of retaking a majority in the Senate. The opposite end of the ominous task is the fact that there are only about three or maybe four GOP-held seats that the Dems have a reasonable shot of flipping.
“If we can get a majority back in the senate,” Warren added, “we can put a stop to this.”
For Warren and the dozen or so blue-state liberals up for reelection, fending off longshot challenges is imperative to party strategy. Because so far this election has been viewed through the lens of how Dems can bounce back. Given the indicators, no one paying close attention would bet on Republicans being the party to make real tangible gains in this cycle, but it’s a possibility that ought to at least be considered, maybe even taken seriously. If Warren loses, it’s hard to picture a map on which GOP contenders don’t pick up at least nine seats in the Senate—while padding their lead in the House and in other lower-ballot races—to lock up a super majority and usher in an era of pure one-party rule across the federal government.
Such a scenario is unlikely. What is likely is that the GOP will zero in on Warren regardless of their chances of beating her. The senator is one of just a few potential 2020 presidential contenders facing an election in this year; elsewhere, Sen. Bernie Sanders will cruise to reelection in Vermont, while Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut seems less than interested in making a run at the White House, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo will have to deal with a different kind of challenge, as actress and activist Cynthia Nixon has taken him on from the left in her insurgent bid. The only other widely recognized potential POTUS candidate in a similar boat is Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Regardless, we can expect the Massachusetts seat to be a target.
“The truth is [Warren]’s running for president,” GOP challenger Beth Lindstrom said in a recent stump speech. “And she’s doing everything she can to put the spotlight on herself and win the support of the far left.”
Warren represents a threat to Trump and the GOP’s stranglehold over the levers of power in this country, and the current campaign gives them a chance to damage her theoretical candidacy. It’s an opportunity they’re taking seriously.
It’s a warm day in touristy Newburyport, and between summer vacationers and the supporters and reporters following the US Senate campaign trail, every main road heading into town is clogged.
Formidable opponents or not, Warren is the marque political figure in Bay State politics, and she doesn’t seem to be taking her reelection lightly. The senator has maintained a steady slate of town hall-style events since last year. According to the campaign, Newburyport marked the 28th such event this election cycle.
The line to get in creeps beyond the building, across the school’s front lawn and back about 100 yards to the edge of the street. It’s hot, but no one seems to mind. That’s not surprising. As Republican Sen. Ted Cruz told his side in February, “The left is going to show up. They will crawl over broken glass in November to vote.”
“It’s gorgeous out there, and people filled a high school auditorium to capacity because they are concerned about the policies the Republicans are following in Washington,” Warren tells me after the event. “There is a real energy, a real push to make their voices heard.”
Warren confirms those sentiments in Newburyport. “All the things you could be doing, and here you are in a school auditorium to talk policy,” the senator said. “I love being from Massachusetts.”
The senator takes the stage to a serenade of raucous applause. Other than a lone man wearing a “Proud to be a deplorable” shirt loudly booing, the crowd enthusiastically eats up every word. The focus is on policy. From unions—Warren says her brother “taught me unions built America’s middle class and unions will rebuild America’s middle class”—to healthcare, Warren addresses issues central to the progressive agenda, even addressing Trump’s since-scrapped policy of separating children of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants from their parents.
“We are better people than this,” Warren tells supporters. “The idea that people would come to our borders, fleeing violence, fleeing death … women who are asking for asylum because they have been raped, because they have been subjected to abuse. And it’s not simply that we say that we want to hear your story. It’s that for the very act of asking for mercy that we rip their children out of their arms and put them in detention centers. This is an outrage visited on the American people by Donald Trump and it must stop.”
With that cue, someone in the crowd shouts, “Nuremberg,” referencing the trials held for the Nazis after World War II.
Outside, a supporter tells me, “I don’t think anyone else has a chance of winning, but you can never be too certain after what happened last time [in 2016].”
Immigration’s also been a central issue on the red side of the ballot.
State Rep. Geoff Diehl has emerged as the narrow frontrunner in a GOP field that also includes attorney and conservative donor John Kingston and Beth Lindstrom, the latter the director of consumer affairs in former Mass Gov. Mitt Romney’s cabinet. (Entrepreneur Shiva Ayyadurai, whose campaign slogan mocks Warren’s claim that she has Native American roots, originally entered the GOP primary before deciding to run as an independent.)
At the MassGOP convention in Worcester in April, Diehl’s introduction video featured the candidate prominently driving along the US-Mexican border in El Paso proclaiming the need to fund Trump’s wall.
“You know, people say, ‘Why do we need to build a wall? We already have a fence,’” Diehl says, pointing out the border fencing. “Well, let me show you why we still need to build a wall. Do you really think this barbed wire is going to stop drugs and human trafficking from Mexico to the United States?”
The co-chair of Trump’s Mass campaign in 2016, Diehl has firmly staked out the hard-right lane of the primary. His platform focuses on lowering taxes, slashing regulations, and taking a hardline stance on immigration—positions sure to generate enthusiasm with the party’s base.
“My mission was anybody but Warren,” said Bob DeLisle, a Republican delegate from Lynn who volunteered for the Trump campaign in 2016. “I don’t think Kingston or Lindstrom have a shot, so I’m backing Diehl.”
At the convention, Diehl won the nomination on the second ballot, picking up 55 percent of the delegates to Lindstrom’s 26 and Kingston’s 19.
Kingston is the kind of Republican Bay Staters have grown used to in the past few decades. Space for that position is evaporating, though, as the GOP, nationally as well as around here, shifts further to the right. In a broad sense, he represents the so-called Moderate Mitt faction—he worked on Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign—of the Republican Party: eager to cut taxes and roll back key regulations, but moderate on social issues and opposed to Trump. Kingston even unenrolled from the Republican Party two years ago in response to Trump, founding the group “Better for America,” which sought to promote an independent candidate for president.
These days, the so-called Third Way candidates—free-market capitalists with centrist positions on social issues like abortion and LGBT rights—are a dying breed in the Commonwealth. Toward the left, virtually every Democratic candidate for high office has endorsed progressive positions like single-payer healthcare and criminal justice reform. On the right, Republicans have embraced the same hard conservative views, on immigration and other issues, that dominate the party nationwide.
“On the vote to build the wall, Elizabeth Warren would vote no,” Kingston said in Worcester. “I would vote yes.”
At least rhetorically, Kingston has moved to the right, seemingly in an effort to appeal to some Trump voters. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering how big the president won in the 2016 Massachusetts primary. Two years ago, Trump won that preliminary contest here with 311,313 votes, good for more than 49 percent of the pie. Combined with Ted Cruz’s 9.6 percent and Ben Carson’s 2.6 percent, over 60 percent of GOP voters endorsed strong right-wing candidates in the last presidential primary. And at the state’s Republican convention, nearly 30 percent of the delegates backed far-right gubernatorial candidate Scott Lively. Repulsive as they may be, it’s a group that candidates like Kingston know they need to tap into ahead of the Sept 4 primary.
“Where is Warren?” Kingston, a multimillionaire who has degrees from Penn and Harvard, told the crowd in Worcester. “Busy writing books, pocketing millions, lecturing us, looking down on us. Because we’re deplorables?”
Lindstrom’s in a similar boat. Another candidate with ties to Romney, she takes a hard-right stance on economic and foreign policy issues, but also supports LGBTQ and abortion rights—social issues that are certain to be magnified given the recent news of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s pending retirement.
Some of the Lindstrom backers I spoke with at the convention cited her position as the only candidate who could feasibly beat Warren. That logic makes some sense in this climate; not only are said social issues important to many Massachusetts voters, but this election cycle has been widely acknowledged as a breakthrough opportunity for women candidates. Through June, there have already been 75 more women to secure congressional nominations than at this point in 2016, claiming 183 total House wins so far. While the vast majority of that uptick comes on the blue side, Republicans have seen increases as well. Lindstrom’s loaded resume and image as a trailblazer in Bay State politics could work in her favor.
“I will contrast [Warren’s] empty failures with my own record of success—as a mom and a wife, as the first female director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, as the state’s secretary of consumer affairs,” Lindstrom said at the convention.
Of course, Lindstrom still needs to appeal to conservatives in a state and time when being right-wing is deeply unpopular.
“When [Warren] attacks an effort to spare our small-town community banks from being suffocated by overregulation, I will blow the whistle on her,” Lindstrom says, referring to legislation the senator opposed earlier this year to hack away at modest regulations passed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Limited polling shows bank deregulation to be very unpopular and a key issue for progressives like Warren.
Lindstrom is also on board with hardline immigration stances, such as funding Trump’s border wall and opposing sanctuary cities. All of this in a state where fewer than 30 percent of voters approve of the president’s performance.
Like so many Democrats pushing each other to the left to appeal to the party’s progressive base, Diehl, Kingston, and Lindstrom appear to be pushing each other toward the right. That may be the secret to securing the nomination, but whoever emerges on top will be facing a very different electorate in November.
“Once they get the nomination,” said DeLisle, the Republican delegate, “Democrats turn them into Hitler overnight.”
In a political season marked by enthusiasm, what could have been another reelection campaign has become much more intense. And with the impending retirement of Justice Kennedy from the Supreme Court, the battle for control of the Senate has become even more dire. The moderate conservative who sometimes ruled with liberals on wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage, Kennedy will likely be replaced by someone far more right wing if Dems, in the minority, can’t find a way to hold up the appointment.
“People around this country are worried, and they’re right to worry,” Warren said following Kennedy’s announcement.
The strategy for liberals, at least until the new Congress is elected and seated, will be to pick off two moderate-leaning GOP senators to block the appointment of a conservative judge. It’s a long shot, but it’s what they’ve got. Which is especially daunting since the next likely justice to leave is the 85-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the high court’s leading liberal.
The whole scenario makes winning back the Senate in 2018, and the presidency in 2020, that much more important for the Dems. And while it seems like she is poised to win her seat again in a landslide, the outcomes of Warren’s political endeavors are nevertheless intrinsically tied into this battle, at every level, from Mass all the way to the highest court in the land.
Patrick Cochran is an independent journalist covering politics and grassroots activism.