Don't blame Elizabeth Warren for the Democrats' midterm defeat. Follow her back to victory.
That's the message progressives have for their fellow Democrats after Tuesday's widespread losses. Warren's supporters say the party fell short because it failed to emphasize the Massachusetts senator's message of economic populism—and that pushing that message is the road back to congressional control.
"Elizabeth Warren was the most popular Democrat on the campaign trail this cycle—in red states, purple states, and blue states," said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "And that's because her economic populist message ... resonates everywhere."
It's just an initial shot, but it's a sign of things to come. As the party autopsies its 2014 loss, factions promise to further fracture as they debate what went wrong, who's to blame, and where to go next. And for progressives, that means a concerted effort to pull the party to the left.
But for the movement to gain traction, it needs a high-profile candidate for the 2016 presidential contest, someone who would run to the left of Hillary Clinton. Warren is the obvious choice, but she has repeatedly said she won't run.
With Democrats on the outs in Congress, however, those calls promise to get louder.
Warren's allies point to Tuesday night's results as proof that their preferred candidate has national appeal.
Warren hit the trail for Democratic candidates across the map this year, in deep-blue states like Oregon and red ones like West Virginia and Kentucky. She spoke about economic populism issues such as the minimum wage, fixing student-debt problems, and expanding Social Security, a message that worked in states across the ideological spectrum.
While Republicans immediately jumped on both President Obama and Hillary Clinton as the major losers of the night, Warren appeared to have a better track record in the races where she personally campaigned for candidates.
Plenty of candidates whom Warren campaigned for, including Martha Coakley in Warren's home state of Massachusetts, lost their races Tuesday: Warren backed many of the same Democrats in tight races that other top party surrogates did, and Democratic hopefuls Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky and Natalie Tennant in West Virginia, for example, lost by huge margins.
But progressives tout the easy victories for other Warren-endorsed Democrats, including Sens. Al Franken of Minnesota, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, as proof that Warren's policies are successful on the ballot. (Those candidates were all heavy favorites anyway, so it's a stretch to assign Warren responsibility for their victories, but the correlation—at least—is there.)
Democracy for America, another progressive group that's among Warren's biggest cheerleaders, sent an email to its supporters touting Warren-esque candidates like Merkley and Schatz.
"The bright spots in this election come from candidates who understood that the path to victory is to run hard on a populist progressive economic vision—Elizabeth Warren's vision for fighting and winning across America," the email said.
On the issues, allies note that Warren's positions won out in some red states even if Democratic candidates there didn't. Minimum-wage measures passed in four states—Alaska, Arkansas, South Dakota, and Nebraska—even as voters there favored Republican Senate candidates (in Alaska, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich is trailing his GOP opponent, though the race hasn't been called yet).
Charles Chamberlain, DFA's executive director, said the fact that minimum-wage measures passed even as Democratic candidates fell in some states shows that Warren's messaging and stand on issues could have helped Democrats who ultimately lost on Tuesday.
"Look, the same voters [who] voted to raise minimum wage in South Dakota voted to elect [Republican] Mike Rounds," he said. "The problem isn't what we stand for, it's who stands for us. Those Democrats [who lost] were not strong enough on our issues."
So are the results of the midterms enough to make Warren reconsider a presidential run? It was a rough night for Clinton—and as Republicans jump on her midterm record ahead of 2016, there could be an opening for a Democrat who's seen as more of an outsider. And for Warren, who will soon be in the minority in the Senate, seeking national office would certainly give her a bigger platform to compensate for her diminished clout in the upper chamber.
"If I were Sen. Warren I'd be thinking about, what is the strongest way for me to advocate for the change I believe we need to see in America?" Chamberlain said. "When you think about it—languishing in the minority versus leading the entire country—I think that's a real strong calculation she's going to have to make."
Erica Sagrans, the treasurer for the draft-Warren group Ready for Warren, which is ramping up its activities on behalf of the senator (and with which Warren has denied all involvement), said Tuesday's result "does change the calculation" for Warren because a presidential bid could "give more of a voice to her ideas and values."
Regardless, supporters say she'll have a role in shaping the overall Democratic message in 2016 no matter what her decision is—and that her influence on Clinton, for example, is already clear.
"Honestly, I don't know," Green said. "I do believe her current intent is not to run—but that's not to say that she has no role in the 2016 election."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.
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