MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa ― Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Sunday responded to talking points circulated by the campaign of fellow progressive presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) that portray her as a candidate of the elite.
“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” Warren told reporters after a town hall on Sunday. “Bernie knows me and has known me for a long time ... I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction.”
Although the Sanders campaign initially declined HuffPost’s request for comment on Warren’s remarks, Sanders subsequently blamed the portrayal on a staff error. Speaking to reporters after a rally in Iowa City later on Sunday, he called the entire back-and-forth “a little bit of a media blow-up.”
“We have hundreds of employees. Elizabeth Warren has hundreds of employees. And people sometimes say things that they shouldn’t,” Sanders said. You have heard me give many speeches. Have I ever said a negative word about Elizabeth Warren?”
Warren and Sanders, longtime friends whose presidential campaigns hold up similar progressive values and policies, have until recently abided by an informal non-aggression pact, refraining from attacking one other on the campaign trail. In September, some Sanders aides began blasting Warren on social media, but the sniping subsequently died down, reportedly at the behest of Warren’s team.
Sanders and his campaign have continued to abstain from blasting Warren in public. But as campaigns tend to do, his has crafted a customized pitch for Warren supporters that Politico obtained and published on Friday night. (The campaign also has special pitches for supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, according to the Politico report.)
The script reportedly directs Sanders volunteers to tell Warren-leaning voters that “people who support her are highly educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that she’s “bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.” It immediately sparked accusations that the Sanders campaign had begun to rethink its light-touch approach.
A person close to Sanders’ campaign told Politico that the senator was likely aware of the script critical of Warren.
“We were told never to go negative or contrast with other candidates,” the person said. “Bernie would let us know when it was OK. So if that’s happening, he’s aware.”
Some of Warren’s supporters have rallied in her defense in the wake of Politico’s report.
Nelini Stamp, the national organizing director for Working Families Party, a progressive group focused on labor issues that has endorsed Warren, appeared to push back on the Sanders campaign’s talking points in a tweet Sunday.
“I don’t have a high school diploma,” Stamp wrote. “I am not affluent. And I support Elizabeth Warren.”
Sanders has already been comfortable distinguishing his “Medicare for All” plan from Warren’s, which the Massachusetts senator would implement in two stages. Warren plans to pass a public health insurance option first and introduce a single-payer or Medicare for All bill only once the public option is law, in the third year of her presidency. Sanders would introduce the bill, which he is fond of noting that he “wrote,” right away.
As the race tightens ahead of the caucuses, it was becoming more and more likely that the unspoken truce would fray. Sanders had his first-ever lead in Iowa in the Des Moines Register/CNN poll that came out on Friday night. But the influential survey also showed Warren trailing him within the margin of error, with Buttigieg and Biden hot on her trail.
In the past, the Sanders campaign has insisted that it is courting Biden’s supporters, who skew more working class, more heavily than Warren’s.
But there are at least some left-wing Iowans who are deciding between the two New England senators, according to David Yepsen, an Iowa politics specialist and former Des Moines Register campaign reporter.
“Of course Bernie and Elizabeth Warren are competing with each other for progressive votes,” Yepsen said in an interview on Saturday.
But whether it was wise for Sanders to throw the first punch is another question.
Jeff Link, an unaligned Democratic strategist based in Des Moines, warned Sanders strongly against it in an interview Sunday morning, noting that Sanders has benefited from a united front with Warren in the debates and that he has successfully avoided negative attack ads of any kind.
“The Sanders campaign has been served well by staying very close to Senator Warren, even in the fall when it looked like that was a dangerous decision,” said Link, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns. “Now that he’s got momentum and is ahead, it’s easier to stand with her. I don’t understand why they would change now.”
Whether Sanders, in fact, instigated a skirmish with Warren, however, is a matter of some debate, especially after Sanders’ comments late Sunday implying he had no knowledge of the script.
From the moment she responded to the Politico report on Sunday afternoon, Warren found a way to frame Sanders’ comments as a direct validation of her candidacy.
Warren’s campaign has been trying recently to cast her as the contender uniquely capable of uniting the Democratic Party’s progressive and moderate wings. Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro made the case explicitly on Sunday, speaking ahead of Warren in an elementary school auditorium. Castro, who endorsed Warren last week after he dropped out of the primary, referenced polls showing that high percentages of Democrats would be unhappy voting for Biden and Sanders in the general election.
“She could bring this party together!” Castro declared over the cheers of the audience. “She could unify Democrats to defeat Donald Trump in November of 2020!”
Warren was more subtle in her remarks to reporters, but her meaning was clear, particularly since she referenced the acrimonious 2016 contest between Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“Democrats want to win in 2020,” she said. “We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016 and we can’t have a repeat of that.”
Warren both refused entreaties to run in that race and later, to the consternation of many Sanders partisans, declined to endorse Sanders.
Her absence from the Clinton-Sanders brawl offers Warren an advantage as she seeks to cobble together a coalition of progressives who cast ballots for Sanders, as well as former Clinton supporters who nurse resentment over Sanders’ critiques of Clinton, which they believe weakened her against then-candidate Donald Trump.
“Democrats need to unite our party. And that means pulling in all parts of the Democratic coalition,” Warren said. “It means building a grassroots movement with face-to-face conversations, with people who door knock. ... We need someone who will excite every part of the Democratic Party, someone that every Democrat can believe in.”
After Warren’s comments, her campaign began using the remarks from Sanders’ campaign in fundraising emails.
“This type of attack isn’t about disagreeing on issues — it’s about dismissing the potency of our grassroots movement,” the email said.
What remains to be seen is whether the dispute between the field’s two most progressive presidential hopefuls will continue on the debate stage in Des Moines on Tuesday night.
At the very least, Sanders’ lead in Iowa is likely to make him the target of attacks ― whether they come from Warren or other candidates like Biden, whom the Sanders campaign has been hammering relentlessly.
“It’s going to be really good. It’s going to matter,” Link said of the upcoming debate. “The stakes are high.”