Republicans to Warren: Please, please, run for president

FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2017 file photo, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Republicans say they would love to run against her for president in 2020.
FILE - In this Nov. 28, 2017 file photo, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Republicans say they would love to run against her for president in 2020. AP

Progressive activists adore her, her campaign cash is piling up and she is celebrated by liberals as a key leader of the “resistance” to Donald Trump.

But no one relishes the prospect of an Elizabeth Warren presidential bid quite like Republicans do.

“I’ll be glad to donate,” joked Ron Kaufman, the Republican National Committeeman from Massachusetts who has watched Warren’s career closely. “I think she’s probably unelectable as president.”

Added Brian Ballard, a longtime Florida lobbyist and top fundraiser for Trump, “As a fan of the president’s, I hope that Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic nominee. That would be a dream come true for us.”

To make that match-up reality, the Massachusetts senator and liberal icon would have to survive what will undoubtedly be a competitive Democratic primary, should she run. But she already has laid some groundwork for a possible presidential campaign against Trump, as POLITICO reported this week.

That thrills Trump’s supporters, who say a Warren challenge would unite Republicans behind the polarizing president in a way that the more moderate Hillary Clinton — even with her years of baked-in baggage with Republicans — could not in 2016.

“You’d have thought Hillary Clinton would have done that, but certainly, Elizabeth Warren or [Vermont independent Sen.] Bernie Sanders, you’ve got to believe, would solidify our party like nothing ever before,” Ballard said. “I’m rooting for her. I wish her the best. Good luck in the primary.”

Warren, who led the charge in establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has carved out an image as a fiery liberal populist and a sharp and frequent Trump critic. She delights progressives who want to see Trump rebuked at every turn, and she energizes an already activated and angry Democratic base.

But her hard-left posture, which makes her so popular among liberals – and could make her formidable in a Democratic primary – gives Republicans reason to think she would scare disillusioned Republicans who might be looking for an alternative to the historically unpopular president.

“She is quite possibly the only candidate who could convince some of the Republicans who have been hesitant to support Trump to vote for him,” said Ryan Williams, who served as a longtime aide to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee. “There’s no question she would rally the Democratic base, but she’d alienate swing voters and moderate Republicans who have not exactly warmed to Trump. She has the ability to convince some middle-of-the-road Republicans who are wary of Trump to pull the lever for him because she’s so divisive and radical.”

In her 2012 Senate race, Warren was also painted as extreme, even for deep-blue Massachusetts. Republicans seized on past comments, such as, “I have thrown rocks at people I think are in the wrong.” Republicans still bring such remarks up today to cast Warren as a truculent class warrior.

“Who does Elizabeth Warren find ‘in the wrong?’” asked one ad at the time, from the Massachusetts GOP. “Employers. Businesspeople. Risk takers. Job creators.”

That didn’t work in Boston. But a broad presidential battlefield is another story, said Colin Reed, who served as communications director for former Sen. Scott Brown, Warren’s 2012 opponent.

“People wanted to run against her in the [last] Senate race in Massachusetts because they viewed her, correctly, as a polarizing, divisive figure, but obviously underestimated her ability to raise money, inspire her base, inflame passions on the left in a way that can mobilize money and support,” Reed said. “A presidential race is different. I don’t think she can run the race she ran last time, or run the campaign-in-waiting she’s running now, and be able to appeal to people who might otherwise be unhappy with the current occupant of the White House and in the direction the country is going.”

Warren’s team declined to comment.

To Warren’s supporters, it’s not that she’s needlessly combative. The senator, who is running for reelection this year, is simply a passionate champion of issues such as reducing income inequality — and now, is an effective voice against Trump’s message, with a willingness to “resist” that fits the infuriated mood of Trump’s many detractors.

“Many, many voters see her as authentic and real and someone who absolutely cares about the things she’s fighting for,” said Doug Rubin, a senior strategist on Warren’s 2012 campaign, who stressed that he was speaking broadly — not about 2020. “She’s a fierce advocate for the issues she cares about, she’s incredibly smart and very credible on these issues. A lot of people are fired up to go fight with her.”

Republicans are wary of making predictions in this unusual political environment so far ahead of 2020, and realize that they should be careful what they wish for: In 2016, there were plenty of Democrats who were eager to run against Trump, expecting a cakewalk. But he successfully tapped into populist fervor, with a message that played much better in Rust Belt states than the more traditional free trade-focused positions typically served up by Republican candidates.

Warren, her supporters say, would cut into Trump’s ability to make that case. She is well-positioned, they argue, to win back voters who typically vote Democrat but drifted Republican last cycle in states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“Elizabeth Warren’s core message of fighting for the little guy against powerful entrenched interests is exactly where the center of the country is,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal grassroots organization that is encouraging Warren to run. “Part of our problem was, we didn’t have the ideal messenger for delivering that very popular, pro-little guy message. Who could be better than Elizabeth Warren, who’s made that her entire life’s work, and made economic populism issues central to her time in the Senate?”

For Republicans who dislike Trump, the idea of choosing between him and Warren spurs talk of third-party bids, wishful speculation about whether Trump will even run again, and shuddering at what they see as the most unpalatable choice they can imagine. For Republicans who do like Trump, that idea is met with glee.

Yet as much as Warren is loudly reviled on the right, some of her Senate Republican colleagues have used gentler language in discussing her recently, as she has worked in a bipartisan fashion on issues from combating opioid addiction to fighting human trafficking to supporting the military.

“Elizabeth Warren and I are on the same page when it comes to protecting our men and women in uniform and our veterans,” said North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican, in a video he tweeted out recently in which he relayed a “good discussion” the two had at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

“Now we just had that bipartisan discussion, then I go sit in the chair and she goes on the [Senate] floor and spends 15 minutes just absolutely ravaging Republicans and conservatives,” he said. “So the public eye would say that we don’t get along. But just a few minutes before, we’re talking about good things we’re doing for military families, for men and women in uniform, and for veterans. Bipartisanship does happen here.”

But for many Republicans, “bipartisanship” is not a word they associate with Warren today.

“I just don’t think this country is going to vote for an ultra-liberal candidate for president,” Kaufman said. “This country is far too right-centrist for that to happen. I hope she runs.”

Katie Glueck: 202-383-6078, @katieglueck