The week before the Super Bowl, more than a thousand people in Massachusetts decided that the best way to fill a Sunday without the Patriots was by listening to Elizabeth Warren talk about the president’s inauguration. “I see Donald Trump getting sworn in when I close my eyes,” she said in a cheery deadpan, coaxing laughs from the crowd packed into the art deco auditorium of Malden High School. The audience, a jumble of pussyhats and Red Sox caps, had come to Warren’s first town hall of 2018 less to ask questions than to get fired up. And Warren was more than happy to oblige.
The crowd hung on her every word. In the massive demonstrations that followed the inauguration, Warren said, she saw a gathering army ready to stand up to the bully in the White House. “The fight takes place at the ballot box this November,” she said, the mere mention of the upcoming midterms sending the audience into a fit of applause. “It’s been almost exactly a year since Trump was sworn in. I think about what that means. When the history of this period is written, what are the historians going to say?”
While it’s too early to divine just what historians will conclude about this moment, Warren is clearly riding high. She’s near the top of every list and poll of probable presidential contenders in 2020, and despite her regular claims that she sees no further than her race for reelection to the Senate in November, it’s fair to view 2018 as merely act one of her likelier-by-the-day campaign for the White House. In practically no time, she has ascended from Massachusetts’ upstart senator to bit villain to leader of the Trump resistance and chief boogeyman of the GOP.
All of which explains why her reelection race—seemingly a political lay-up—is suddenly charged with so much…uncertainty. The basic facts are still in Warren’s favor: her incumbency, her ability to raise torrents of donations in small amounts, and a national mood that seems to favor Democrats. But while Warren is busy trying to figure out what historians will say about this moment—and what kind of army she would need to change the story—conservatives from around the country are marshaling money and manpower to do to her what they did to Hillary Clinton: probe every weakness and strength from every possible angle for years ahead of the presidential election, searching for the point of attack that can ultimately prevent her coronation.
This is more or less the stated goal of every one of the mostly long-shot candidates who are running against Warren in November—Geoff Diehl, John Kingston, Beth Lindstrom, and Shiva Ayyadurai—as well as outside moneymen such as Robert Mercer, one of conservative America’s wealthiest political donors, who has waded into the race. As the campaign hits its stride heading into the summer, it remains to be seen whether this race will serve as the first chapter in Warren’s slow and calculated political assassination, or just a black hole for conservative cash. Republicans, here and afield, are sharpening strategies to puncture Warren’s image as a straight-talking liberal crusader—branding her as a rich hypocrite, or Che Guevara in a cardigan. If it works here, that means it could work everywhere. But will Massachusetts voters fall for it?
“Who is the real Elizabeth Warren?” growls a narrator, stating the opening gambit of what promises to be the GOP’s lead line of attack. “It’s hard to tell.” The ominous-sounding campaign ad, which began airing halfway through 2017, rebukes the first-term senator for making six figures at Harvard while students in the state accumulate debt. “Hypocrite professor Elizabeth Warren,” the voice-over concludes. “Huge salaries for her; rising costs and crushing debt for families and students like you.”
The race has been quiet so far, but the radio spot is a clear sign of what’s to come. The ad is essentially a test run to see what voters will, and won’t, buy into. Right now, conservatives are taking their favorite line of attack for a whirl, asserting that Warren, instead of wanting to reverse income inequality, is just another self-interested politician. The $150,000 ad buy was orchestrated and paid for by a group called Massachusetts First, a localized spinoff of the “America First” ethos that saturated the political market in 2016. It’s funded partially by Putnam Investments president and CEO Robert L. Reynolds and two LLCs, but the primary backer is Mercer.
Mercer made his money as the one-time CEO of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies; he made a name for himself by helping Trump take the White House. The Long Island–based conservative donor financed the data work that led Trump’s campaign to spend resources in the decisive Midwest, and funded the work of Stephen Bannon and his stable of Breitbart provocateurs. Nick Patterson, a computational biologist who once recruited Mercer to join Renaissance Technologies, has said repeatedly that he believed Trump won because of the Mercers, referring to both Robert and his politically active daughter, Rebekah. “I still believe that,” he tells me, adding that Hillary Clinton had been outthought. “Bob likes to look at large data sets and find patterns. He’s very good at that.”
Mercer’s history as a donor is mixed—other than leaning conservative, he doesn’t appear to have a specific ideology. He has backed Ted Cruz and supported Bush-era neocon John Bolton’s super PAC, as well as some fringier causes such as eccentric life-extension research and Ayn Randian visions of limited government—so while he seems committed to being a power player of some sort, his plan isn’t exactly clear, and he doesn’t seem interested in giving any hints. (Massachusetts First’s treasurer, Charles Gantt, who is also overseeing the paperwork for John Kingston’s super PAC in this race, did not respond to a request for comment.) “I don’t know what’s in the Mercers’ heads,” says Ray La Raja, a political science professor at UMass Amherst. “They just like to blow things up.”
While Mercer might be the biggest outside name to get involved in the race, his wasn’t the first outside conservative outfit to set up shop against Warren. Last spring, after the state’s senior senator published her most recent book, This Fight Is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class, the opposition research group America Rising PAC, founded by Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign manager in 2012, announced that Warren had a target on her back. In the lead-up to 2016, as the group ran ads against Clinton and conducted research on her, they were also sending trackers around the country to start building their Warren file. “We view the book launch as the soft launch of her presidential campaign,” America Rising’s executive director, Colin Reed, told Politico. “We’ll do the same to her as we did with Hillary Clinton in 2014.”
So what exactly does that mean? The groups themselves were predictably hesitant to divulge tactics. “We’re not going to give away our full game plan, for obvious reasons,” says Marty Lamb, copresident of Deal Her Out, a super PAC supporting Diehl. “Email marketing, social media, television, radio, print, digital—depending, obviously, on what money we pull in.” But, he adds, the primary goal “is to educate voters on Elizabeth Warren and see her taken down in November. That is important in the bigger picture for 2020.”
Back in Malden, outside Warren’s town hall, voters were confronted by a flurry of her opponents, all hoping to take advantage of the crowds she draws and siphon off some of the senator’s rock-star magnetism. There was a school bus, painted red, white, and blue, representing Ayyadurai’s independent campaign for the Senate. Another bus, this one spackled with the requisite flag imagery, accompanied by Diehl’s face, sat nearby. Fleece-clad volunteers scurried toward anything breathing, vying for their attention and for signatures on mailing lists.
In a way, the scene neatly encapsulates the order-versus-chaos dynamic of the Senate race—Warren’s neat choreography in contrast to a maelstrom of detractors throwing whatever is on hand at her. Given the disorder from which they spring, it will be interesting to see whether the attacks against Warren have any effect, either on this year’s race or any future one. In other words, are Massachusetts voters going to respond to these ads in a way that will make conservative donors want to replicate them in 2020?
At this early juncture, almost to a one, the voters I talked with in Malden had no idea that forces were preparing for a blitz against Warren’s character. While outside groups have limited utility in influencing races when they aren’t the only source of information for votes—a situation that can exist in local and judicial elections, but hardly in races like this one—advertising can shift perceptions of a candidate in a way that is lasting. “Outside groups can help define the narrative surrounding a candidate,” says policy analyst Michael Beckel of Issue One, a government-reform nonprofit. “Being able to spend money in a Senate race can help define them during that Senate race, and those ads could have repercussions in elections down the line.”
While the specter of millions of dollars in outside money, and the attack ads that kind of cash can buy, looms darkly, it’s important to note that it’s often impossible to prove the effect that outside money has on a campaign—it’s just one variable among dozens at play. “Overall,” says Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, “money is an overestimated factor in election outcomes. The elections people want to influence are the hardest to make a difference in.” Burying a race in ads also has diminishing returns. “It’s not necessarily the most efficient way to use money,” says Michael Malbin, executive director of the Campaign Finance Institute, “but it’s the only thing you can do if all you have is money.” In 2016, he tells me, Mercer’s decision to “underwrite Breitbart made a difference. The money he gave Cruz didn’t make a difference.” Put another way, you can buy up all the airtime you want, but if your messaging stinks, you might as well be setting your money on fire.
In This Fight Is Our Fight, Warren notes the power of money in politics, writing, “Political priorities are shaped by the perception of what problems need to be addressed, and money powerfully shapes perception.” While Warren’s detractors are trying to brand her a hypocrite, her campaign is clearly bracing for the attacks, having raised almost $24 million by the beginning of the year, and trying to negate criticism by attaching it to the one percenters whom her messaging always targets as the enemy. “Billionaires like the Mercers want a return on their investment from the politicians they help elect,” a spokeswoman for Warren told me in a statement, “but that won’t stop Senator Warren from standing up for Massachusetts working families against powerful corporate interests and billionaires who try to buy elections.” Moreover, the Warren campaign clearly plans on blaming Mercer personally in advance of a possibly messy race. “If the Mercer family truly wants to go after Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts,” one fundraising email from October read, “we can only imagine the sort of garbage they’re going to spew to tear her down. If you thought 2016 was bad, 2018 could be even worse.”
Even so, that doesn’t mean the negative attack ads that will soon flood the airwaves are guaranteed to work. For one reason, says Michael Goldman, a political consultant who worked on campaigns for Marty Walsh and Maura Healey, voters will also be bombarded this year with ads featuring well-liked Governor Charlie Baker and dozens of candidates running for open congressional seats, secretary of state, and attorney general. Plus, Goldman adds, although Warren is facing a dependable bloc of voters who will show up to oppose her, the bloc who will turn out to support her seems equally reliable (not to mention larger). The pool of votes left to fight over isn’t that large. And anyway, the senator is going to have so much money that whatever negative messaging her opponents pay for “is going to get washed away,” Goldman says, by Warren’s positive campaign.
That doesn’t mean Warren should feel safe—not by a long shot. There’s no such thing as a sure bet in this tumultuous political environment, and her opponents have a passion for turning Warren’s words and actions against her. In response to her invitation to reject outside political donations, in the style of her race against Scott Brown in 2012, opponents have lashed out. “Elizabeth Warren is like Scrooge McDuck sitting on a giant pile of gold coins and insisting that we need to take the money out of politics,” says Gail Gitcho, an adviser to the Beth Lindstrom Senate campaign. “It’s laughable.” Holly Robichaud, Diehl’s spokesperson, says, “It’s a hypocritical pledge for her to even suggest.” Of course, if “hypocrite” doesn’t work for you, rest assured Warren’s opponents have plenty of backup options: “progressive,” “far left,” and Donald Trump’s current favorite, “Pocahontas,” are all likely coming soon to a TV near you. Conservatives such as Mercer can’t wait to hear what you think.