‘They’re trying to turn Elizabeth into a boogeyman’


Republicans need a new campaign villain — and Elizabeth Warren is looking increasingly like their choice.

With Barack Obama and Harry Reid out of office and Nancy Pelosi toiling deep in the minority, Republicans are in search of a figure so reviled by the conservative base that he or she motivates donors to open their wallets and voters to go the polls.

Party strategists believe the liberal Massachusetts senator’s brand of politics is a serious turnoff to voters outside the coasts — and will be a liability for at least five Democrats up for reelection in states President Donald Trump easily won. So Republicans are already making plans to raise her profile — in the worst way possible — ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Warren is getting top billing in news releases by the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Senate Leadership Fund, a prominent Republican super PAC with ties to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The NRSC is launching a new round of digital ads on Wednesday dinging incumbent Democrats for voting with Warren, officials said. And it’s just a matter of time before she’s featured prominently in TV ads, too.

“Elizabeth Warren is the face of the Democratic Party," said National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Cory Gardner (Colo.). "She's extremely popular with their base, and that's why she's leading them right now. That's why [Democrats] are voting 100 percent of the time with Elizabeth Warren."

Republicans have long tried to personalize off-year election cycles, driving a wedge between vulnerable incumbents and their lightning-rod leaders. In 2010, the GOP spent $75 million on advertisements featuring then-House speaker Pelosi. To a lesser degree they tried it again in 2014 with Reid, the Democratic Senate leader, who was often featured with Obama. Both GOP wave elections were cast as referendums on Obama.

There are fewer targets now with Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress. Schumer has relatively low name ID and a reputation as a dealmaker, not a partisan warrior.

So Warren it is. Her liberal profile makes for an inviting contrast to the image of moderation that swing-state Democrats will be aiming to project in a host of conservative-leaning states next year, Republicans say. And to the extent they can knock Warren down a few pegs, it would diminish an early Democratic frontrunner for president in 2020.

In interviews, Democratic senators said they're prepared for millions in ads linking them to Warren, whose office declined to comment for this story.

“To suggest that we’re Elizabeth Warren is ridiculous, especially when you look at voting records and where we’ve been,†said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). “They need a boogeyman, and they’re trying to turn Elizabeth into a boogeyman. And I think maybe what they should worry about more is actually doing America’s work.â€

It's not a surefire play for Republicans. Warren electrifies the Democratic base more than perhaps any other senator and is frequently used in Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee literature to raise money or build fundraising lists. Her favorability rating is slightly above water — better than Schumer's and Pelosi's, though worse than Bernie Sanders'. If the strategy backfires, it could boost Warren's White House prospects.

Warren has emerged as among the Democratic Party’s most outspoken opposition figures to Trump. Earlier this month, she was silenced by McConnell after reading a 1986 letter from Coretta Scott King that criticized then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general. Although Sessions was confirmed, the episode generated a wave of attention for Warren that few, if any, other Democrats could match.

But according to Republicans, her popularity simply doesn’t extend to the states where the midterms will be won or lost — places like North Dakota, West Virginia, Missouri, Indiana and Montana.

“In the states that Trump won that Democrats are running in, I can’t imagine that she helps them. I think she hurts them,†said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), a former chairman of the NRSC.

The first election after a new president is sworn in typically gives the minority party a major opportunity to wrest back some control of Washington. But there are nearly a dozen Democratic senators up for reelection next year in competitive states, and only two Republicans.

The GOP controls 52 seats, so even if there’s a backlash against Trump, there’s little chance Democrats will take back the Senate.

The new NRSC ads focus on the 10 Democrats on the ballot in states Trump carried, dinging them for voting with Warren. They say West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin voted with her 78 percent of the time and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown did so 97 percent of the time. It’s not clear how much money is behind them, though officials said they will appear on Facebook feeds in those competitive states.

Schumer said flatly of the GOP strategy: “It’s not going to work.â€

And moderate Democrats argue that it’s a stretch, at best, to accuse them of being Warren clones.

“She has her own brand. And I think I have my own brand in my own state, so it really doesn’t hurt me,†said Manchin. “They’ve tried the ‘guilty by association’ with [Obama.]â€

Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who initiated the effort to sideline Warren during the Sessions debate, said the Massachusetts senator’s ascendance helps the GOP.

“One of the responsibilities when you represent an entire state is to listen to all of the voices,†said Daines, who himself experienced a boomlet of attention after telling Warren to take her seat. “Ultimately, you want to make sure you are aligned with where most Montanans are on an issue. And I can tell you most Montanans are not aligned with Elizabeth Warren.â€

But Daines’ Montana colleague, Sen. Jon Tester, said her reputation in the state is more nuanced. “There are some people in Montana that love her,†said Tester, a Democrat who is up in 2018. “There are some people in Montana that hate her. And there are a lot of shades of gray in between.â€

Warren campaigned for Democratic Senate candidates last year in states including North Carolina and Missouri. That suggests Democrats believe she’s a net plus, even if those candidates lost. Warren has her own Senate race in 2018, which will keep her in Massachusetts much of the next year, allowing incumbents to sidestep potential criticism over stumping with her.

Democrats argue that Trump, not Warren, will drive next year’s election. They say the GOP is grasping for a strategy now that it is in power and Trump is off to the least popular start in modern presidential history.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be fooled,†said DSCC Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland.



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