Massachusetts GOP looks for challenger vs. Warren

Massachusetts GOP looks for challenger vs. Warren
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

Massachusetts Republicans are looking to field a serious challenger to take on liberal star Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren: Liberals will ‘lead the Democratic Party back from the wilderness’ Warren asks where bank CEOs stand on customers' ability to join class action suits Labor Department seeks delay of Obama investment adviser rule MORE in the state’s 2018 Senate race — a campaign that also gives the GOP an opportunity to weaken a potential 2020 Democratic presidential contender.

Republicans in the state already face tough odds unseating the Massachusetts Democrat. Confident in her reelection chances, Warren, who will be 69 for the midterm elections, has positioned herself as the chief antagonist to President Trump.

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump quietly putting his stamp on the courts Democrats see ObamaCare leverage in spending fights OPINION | Progressives, now's your chance to secure healthcare for all MORE’s (R-Ky.) move to silence Warren during a recent debate has further emboldened Democrats, elevating Warren’s profile both nationally and back at home.

“It gives her another vehicle to raise campaign dollars,” said Ryan Williams, a former aide to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “I think it’ll be quickly forgotten, but it certainly was something that got a lot of attention and helped her raise some money in the short term.”

Republicans have had a target on the prominent liberal’s back even before her election to the upper chamber in 2012, since Warren led the charge in creating the Republican-loathed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But the reliably blue state poses a steep challenge for them, especially after Trump lost there by 27 points.

Still, the party points to a recent WBUR poll that found that less than half of Massachusetts voters say they want Warren to run for reelection as proof that she’s more vulnerable going into a second term.

In the weeks since Trump assumed office, Warren has been a thorn in the president’s side. She vowed to stand up to the administration in an email to supporters announcing her reelection run and grilled Trump’s Cabinet nominees in several social media-friendly exchanges.

Warren made noise after reading a letter from civil rights icon Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor in opposition to Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) SessionsPelosi renews call for Trump to fire Bannon Lawmakers press DOJ to help victims of Ponzi scheme Trump records robocall for Luther Strange MORE’s (R-Ala.) nomination for attorney general. Republicans subsequently voted to silence Warren for the rest of the debate, which outraged Democrats and dominated national headlines. Her office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Mitch McConnell helped her out a great deal, not that she frankly needed it with the base, but at this time with what people in Massachusetts think about the president, to be condescending and misogynistic and sexist and everything else was just an enormous boost for Elizabeth Warren,” said Scott Ferson, a Democratic strategist and former aide to the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Whatever Republican wins the nomination will go into the Senate race as the underdog. The state’s congressional delegation is made up entirely of Democrats, though the state has a popular Republican governor.

The last time a Republican won a Senate race was in 2010, when Scott Brown won the special election to fill Kennedy’s seat. In 2012, Brown lost the race for a full Senate term to Warren.

But GOP strategists believe that even with the state dynamics, any Republican challenger should draw attention to Warren’s national focus and argue that she isn’t committed to her constituents.

“She’s going to likely be riding a wave of discontent in Massachusetts toward the administration’s policies in Washington, but a challenger would be wise to run a campaign against her focused on the lack of results that she has achieved for Massachusetts,” Williams said.

“She’s not focused on delivering for her constituents. She’s focused on setting up a potential presidential run, and she’s doing that at the expense of her current job.”

The GOP field has yet to take shape, but state Rep. Geoff Diehl (R) said he is seriously considering a run. Diehl grew his profile after co-chairing Trump’s presidential campaign in the state.

While he has no set timeline for making a decision, Diehl said he’s been encouraged to run by Republicans in the state and in Washington, and GOP and Democratic strategists characterized him as a credible challenger. He touted his bipartisan work pushing back against the state’s 2024 Olympics bid and his legislative record, though he noted that Republicans “generally don’t get to do much in the legislature.”

“If I were to run, it’d certainly be an underdog race,” Diehl said in an interview with The Hill.

“What we’re seeing is basically obstruction to a degree I’ve really never seen before in Washington. [Warren] seems to be willing to criticize every single nominee for every single Cabinet post.”

Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonOPINION | Tomi Lahren: The left politicizes tragedy — as usual Hunting for the real Trump on Charlottesville New Trump campaign emails show efforts to set up Russia meetings: report MORE won Massachusetts in the presidential election by an even larger margin than Barack ObamaBarack ObamaLook to Latinos to drive US economic growth Glimmer of hope in bipartisan criminal justice reform effort Sessions: Neo-Nazis 'attempting to legitimate themselves' MORE did in 2008. Still, Trump had a resounding victory in the state’s GOP primary, winning by nearly 50 points.

Strategists say that Diehl’s stance as a Trump backer means he’ll be able to mobilize Trump supporters and fundraise nationally from grassroots donors. But he’ll likely have trouble swaying voters beyond his base and reaching out to the middle.

Other possible contenders include wealthy businessman Rick Green, who co-chaired Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s (R) presidential campaign in the state and has run to chair the state GOP, and former Red Sox pitcher turned Breitbart News radio host Curt Schilling.

Schilling, who was fired as an ESPN analyst in 2016 over social media posts about transgender bathroom access, could use his celebrity to challenge more traditional candidates. But it’s not clear how serious he is about a bid, despite saying last October that he would run.

Republicans believe any candidate who runs should focus on localizing the race.

“It’s about talking about Sen. Warren’s record and really making this about Massachusetts,” said Kirsten Hughes, chairwoman of the Massachusetts Republican Party. “I expect anyone challenging her, whether that’s Geoff or Rick or anyone yet to emerge, I expect that’s what they’re going to do.”

Republicans acknowledge political action committees and outside groups will likely prioritize more competitive races, especially with a 2018 Senate map that is ripe with opportunities for the GOP. 

But Republicans can envision a situation where they get some last-minute resources from these groups if the GOP challenger shows promise, as Brown did in his first Senate campaign.

“The majority of resources will go toward the winnable races before the Massachusetts Senate race is even considered,” Williams said. “I think it’ll be the same situation in this race where it will not get much attention unless there are some solid signs that it is in fact competitive.”

Even if groups like the National Republican Senatorial Committee don’t invest in Warren’s challenger, they’re already trying to sink vulnerable red-state Democratic senators by tying them to the liberal stalwart.

“Provided the Republicans can field, at the minimum, a credible challenger, it’ll still be a nationally watched race,” said Kevin Franck, a Democratic political consultant and former spokesman for the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

“A big challenge that Sen. Warren and Democrats in Massachusetts have is trying to generate a more presidential-year turnout in an off-year.”

Still, Democrats remain confident that Warren is a formidable opponent and describe her as a fundraising juggernaut.

“I think, frankly, a challenge helps her because it would boost her profile here,” Ferson said. “She gets a chance to sort of ... refresh yourself with your electorate.

“It’s as tough as running against Ted Kennedy.”