GOP taps anti-Clinton strategy to damage Elizabeth Warren early

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., addresses business leaders during a New England Council luncheon in Boston.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., addresses business leaders during a New England Council luncheon in Boston. AP

Republicans are getting a jump on Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 presidential campaign.

The Massachusetts Democrat is preparing to run for re-election to the Senate in 2018 and hasn’t said yet whether she’ll challenge President Donald Trump for the White House. But in-state and national Republican officials have decided to target the liberal icon anyway, saying they will try to inflict enough damage during the Senate race to harm any future presidential effort — and perhaps dissuade her from running altogether.

Already, one national Republican group has begun a comprehensive effort to track Warren’s every public appearance and add to a dossier of unflattering research on her. Other GOP officials predict that even in deep-blue Massachusetts, the senator’s opponents could raise gobs of money from conservatives nationwide and even benefit from the attention of Trump.

The goal is more about weakening Warren than defeating her: Republicans doubt that any of their party’s likely candidates could topple her next year. But even with the next presidential election more than three years away, they say exposing her weaknesses now — or making sure her race is closer than expected — could do lasting damage.

“We learned from our experience with Secretary (Hillary) Clinton that when you start earlier, the narratives have more time to sink in and resonate with the electorate,” said Colin Reed, executive director at the Republican outside group America Rising.

Reed’s group launched an effort in April to catalog and promote Warren’s mistakes, announcing that it would try to defeat the senator during next year’s race while also trying to “continue developing the long-term research and communications angles to damage her 2020 prospects.”

Republicans say that’s only the beginning.

Senator Elizabeth Warren was unable to finish her debate on Sen. Jeff Sessions nomination for attorney general on Tuesday, after the Senate found that she violated Senate Rule XIX.

“Despite the long odds to win a Senate seat in a blue state like Massachusetts, there’s a great deal of interest in Elizabeth Warren’s seat,” said Ryan Williams, who served as a longtime aide to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, and has deep ties to New England Republican politics. “Number 1, she’s universally hated by conservatives, and number 2, she’s viewed as a potential 2020 candidate, and there’s an interest in taking her down a peg before she puts together even an exploratory effort for 2020.”

Williams said he expected GOP donors and groups like America Rising and other outside entities to use the midterm contest as an opportunity to tarnish Warren’s brand, regardless of who her 2018 opponent might be.

“The more serious her campaign is, the more opportunities to make mistakes,” he said. “Republicans would love to see her make a few gaffes in this race that could be used against her in 2020.”

For their part, Warren officials say they expect GOP-aligned outside groups to be involved in the race. They say that more than 16,000 state residents have donated to Warren’s campaign, and they point out the senator has requested that Republican candidates sign another so-called “People’s Pledge.”

The pledge would forbid spending from outside groups from either party, similar to an arrangement the senator had during her last run for Senate, when she took on then-GOP-incumbent Sen. Scott Brown in 2012.

“It’s no surprise that out-of-state billionaires will attempt to buy the election in their favor,” said Kristen Orthman, a Warren adviser. “Corporate interests are looking for a return on their investment so they give to Republican super PACs in exchange for tax breaks for the rich or legislation that benefits their bottom line.”

The Massachusetts Republican field is far from crystallized, but possible contenders include state Rep. Geoff Diehl, who was Trump’s Massachusetts co-chair and has launched an exploratory committee, Gabriel Gomez, a former Navy SEAL who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 2013, and businessman John Kingston.

Republicans believe that whoever emerges as the nominee could have a benefit rarely afforded underdog candidates: money. Warren’s national presence could help funnel donations from conservatives across the country – especially if, as many GOP strategists speculate, Trump takes aim at the senator.

The GOP leader has time and time again singled out Warren, derisively referring to her as “Pocahontas” as he disputed her claims of Native American heritage.

“She’s a great fundraising tool for small-dollar grass-roots contributions,” said a national Republican strategist, who added that he wouldn’t be shocked if Trump got involved.

Given the rise of the progressive “resistance” movement in the era of Trump, the idea of nominating the liberal Warren to the Democratic presidential nomination doesn’t seem so farfetched these days, some Republicans say — and many are eager to take the shine off of her early.

“After the election of Trump, the liberals are driving the train now and pressuring the . . . party leadership to kowtow to them,” Williams said. “That increases the chance that a radical liberal like Elizabeth Warren could win the nomination in 2020. It’s best to start putting points on the board now.”

Banned from speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate during the nomination of Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) met with civil rights leaders and other Democrats right outside the Senate floor. Warren suggest

Certainly, there are plenty of Republicans who say they would relish seeing Warren as the Democratic nominee.

“I’d love to see her run for president,” said former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn. Of her liberal approach, he said, “Maybe in Massachusetts that sounds good, but in 80 percent of the rest of the country, that doesn’t sound good at all.”

Other Republicans say privately that they would take a 2020 bid seriously, aware that Warren’s liberal, populist message could have strong appeal to a riled-up Democratic base.

Boston Republicans say they would welcome national efforts to dent Warren’s reputation. They proudly note that polls have found their Republican governor, Charlie Baker, with higher approval ratings than she has — a sign, in their view, that Warren is hardly invincible.

“The most likely line of attack against Elizabeth Warren, or contrast, is this notion that, sure, Elizabeth Warren is grabbing headlines and challenging the president, but what does that really do for Massachusetts?” said one Boston-based GOP consultant in an interview here near the Statehouse. “She’s writing books, she’s in DC, on cable news, but what does that really mean for Massachusetts?”

The ability to prosecute that case effectively, of course, relies in large part on Republicans finding a credible candidate.

“A successful candidate against Elizabeth Warren certainly needs to create distance between themselves and the national Republican brand but win on the argument that ‘I can oppose the president too when it’s in our best interests, but can bring to the table something for Massachusetts,’ ” said the consultant. “A 2020 narrative can be a part of that: ‘Warren is not running to represent Massachusetts, she’s running to advance partisan goals and position herself for president. We in Massachusetts are getting left behind.’ ”

“Now, has a person surfaced who could do that? No,” the Republican conceded.

For Republicans hoping to see significant outside investments in tarnishing Warren, that’s the potential challenge.

“The outside groups will be there so long as there is a competitive race,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a longtime top aide to Romney. “But they’re not going to throw away money on an election where Warren is expected to win if there are closer contests being fought in other parts of the country.”

America Rising says its commitment to the Massachusetts contest won’t waver, as it prepares to play the long game with the senator.

“It’s the blocking and tackling. It’s the video tracking. It’s building and maintaining an opposition research book. It’s the rapid response communication,” Reed said.

He added: “The earlier you start, the more you do when you start, it can be a political death by a thousand cuts.”

Alex Roarty: 202-383-6173, @Alex_Roarty

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck

Related stories from McClatchy DC