U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is believed to be seriously considering a bid for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination. She is up for re-election to the U.S. Senate this year. Based on the fact that she is a Democrat seeking re-election in a dark blue state, where 2016 Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump garnered just 32.81% of the vote, and because Trump’s sagging job approval ratings are likely to result in an electoral wave for the Democrats, Warren is highly favored for re-election.
Her re-election bid for the Senate will likely have serious ramifications for her expected Presidential bid. The senatorial election will uncover the extent to which the Republicans fear her as the Democratic Presidential nominee in 2020. If the GOP takes her seriously, her senate opponent will stand to benefit in terms of significant support from the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee (RSCC), Party benefactors, and the Massachusetts Republican Party.
If this becomes the case, then Warren will have to spend time defending her record in Massachusetts, rather than barnstorming the country campaigning for Democratic candidates and collecting chits to cash in when she declares herself to be a Presidential candidate. In an attempt to bloody Warren, her Republican opponent (and outside groups fearful of Warren), will likely have the funding to air a barrage of negative advertisements. Given the geographic closeness of New Hampshire to Massachusetts, the advertisements will spill over into New Hampshire, the first in the nation Presidential primary.
Contrariwise, if the Republicans believe she would be a weak Presidential nominee, their Senate nominee will suffer the fait of a sacrificial lamb. The RSCC will dole out minimal support for the effort. Furthermore, the state Republican party will put its efforts into holding onto the Governor’s office, and party benefactors will donate their money elsewhere.
If her eyes are squarely on the Presidency, then from an electoral vantage point, she might be better off not seeking re-election to the Senate, instead using the time to do the spadework for a Presidential campaign. However, one might argue that if Warren can run up the score by winning the Senate race in a landslide, she could then use her lopsided victory in the primaries to show Democratic voters her electoral prowess.
However, Warren is expected to win big in Massachusetts, and few primary voters will view a win in the bluest of states as anything more than proforma. In contrast, a narrow victory could be used by an opponent to show that she cannot even win big in the bluest of states. Furthermore, if the election is too close for comfort, Warren will be asked ad nauseam if she will serve out her full term. An unequivocal answer will only provide her Senate opponent with fodder, declaring that she will be a part-time Senator, or that she is just using the office as a springboard for her own ambitions.
There is precedent for the opposing party conducting a full court press to enfeeble or defeat a potential opponent in a state race, believing he/she will soon seek the Presidency. In his 1968 Presidential bid, former Alabama Governor George C. Wallace, running as the nominee of the American Independence Party, won five Southern states which would likely otherwise have gone to Republican President Richard M. Nixon. In 1970, Wallace sought to regain his old job as Governor as a Democrat against incumbent Governor Albert Brewer.
Republicans feared a 1972 Presidential candidacy for Wallace and tried to stop him in the 1970 Gubernatorial sweepstakes.
Nixon ordered his lawyer, Herbert Kalmbach, to clandestinely funnel $100,000 to Wallace’s opponent, Albert Brewer. Brewer defeated Wallace in the primary, but did not garner the requisite majority of the vote to avoid a runoff with Wallace. In the Runoff Election, Kalmbach secretly sent a $330,000 donation to Brewer. However, the scheme proved feckless as Wallace won the General Election comfortably. Wallace then ran for Presidency as a Democrat two years later, but his campaign came to a halt when he was shot and paralyzed at a campaign rally in Laurel, Maryland.
Southern, young, moderate, and charismatic, the high command in the Republican Party feared the possible Democratic Presidential nominee Bill Clinton. Having been elected Governor of Arkansas four times, Clinton had made a good argument to presidential primary voters of his electoral bone fides in a conservative state. He could use his 1986 26-point victory over former Arkansas Governor Frank White to showcase his popularity in his conservative home state.
However, in 1990, Clinton nearly lost in his bid for a fifth term as Governor. Surprisingly, there were many Arkansas Democrats who believed it was time for new leadership. Clinton was forced to spend an inordinate amount of time defeating unexpectedly formidable primary challenger Tom McRae. McRea tried to make the argument that Clinton had been in office too long and McRae’s message was striking a resonant chord with many Arkansas Democrats.
Bill’s wife Hillary helped top derail McRea’s surge by interrupting a McRae news conference in the State Capitol, where he was excoriating Bill Clinton. Hillary read chapter and verse of compliments McRae had given to Bill Clinton, and refuted McRae’s charges against him. A stunned McRea had little response. Clinton escaped, winning the Democratic primary with just 54.84% of the vote.
Fearing Clinton, Lee Atwater, the Chairman of the National Republican Party, recruited former U.S. Representative Tommy Robinson, a former Democrat, to run in the Republican Gubernatorial Primary. Robinson’s Press Secretary, Rex Nelson, remembers Atwater telling the campaign staff: “The media's full of talk about Mario Cuomo or Bill Bradley. We know how to paint them up as Northeastern liberals like (1988 Democratic Presidential nominee Michael) Dukakis. That's easy! What scares me is a southern moderate or conservative Democrat, and the scariest of all, because he's the most talented of the bunch, is Bill Clinton."
Robinson was merely a pawn for Atwater, who continued: "We're going to take Tommy Robinson and use him to throw everything we can think of at Clinton, drugs, women, whatever works. We may or may not win, but we'll bust him up so bad he won't be able to run again for years."
Ultimately, Robinson lost the Republican Primary to Sheffield Nelson. During that General Election, the polls tightened. Clinton was asked if he would serve out his full term to which he replied: “You bet.” After beating Nelson, Clinton met with Arkansas voters the following year and asked to be released from that pledge. He eventually breached the pledge and declared his Presidential candidacy.
In the last week of a close campaign, Clinton took out two personal loans totaling $80,000 from a local bank. To counter charges made by Nelson that Clinton would “raise and spend,” Clinton called members of the opulent Stephens family of Arkansas in the last two days of the campaign, and secured enough money to air vital television advertisements. Clinton got away with a 14-point win.
In hindsight, Clinton would have been better off to have not sought re-election as Governor in 1990, and focused entirely on the 1992 race. Instead, he was caught in the political danger zone and came razor-close to losing the Governors race, and perhaps even his career in elective office.
While Warren is likely headed for a comfortable Senate re-election victory, she will probably be bombarded with questions about whether she will be a full-time Senator. She will also have to defend her record around the state. That could have the benefit of battle-testing her for a Presidential run. However, if she is seriously considering a Presidential run, the best move might be to not seek re-election and instead focus all of her electoral energy and resources on the 2020 Presidential race. If the Senate race should be competitive, Warren might have to make a promise to serve out her full term and then break it after the election. Moreover, an underperformance by Warren will likely make Democratic benefactors and grassroots supporters trepidatious about donating to her Presidential campaign.