^ Senator Liz Warren, a protest icon — this is what a 2018 challenger faces

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Can a Republican challenger in 2018 mount any kind of respectable campaign against Senator Liz Warren ? Right now, it looks daunting, maybe impossible. Still, if I have learned one thing in over 40 years of working campaigns, it’s that no office holder is unbeatable. The voters do, indeed, hold the fate of electeds in their hands.

So what might a serious Republican challenge to Warren look like ? It’s easier, I think, to say what it can NOT look like :

1. It CANNOT be a pro-President Trump effort. Mr. Trump barely cracks 30 percent favorable in our state; last November, he won only 33 percent, the worst Massachusetts showing by a GOP candidate for President since 1964. Any candidate who can be credibly linked to Mr. Trump, at whatever level or point, is toast.

2.The candidate must be willing, and able financially, to refuse any donation from any PAC or interest group associated with Mr. Trump and to return them if they come to him or her. Somehow, the candidate must be able to raise $ 20 to $ 30 million. From whom ? Why would they give it ? In support of what interests ?

3.The candidate will probably have to do more than just spurn Mr. Trump. He or she will probably have to voice a “resist” role, similar — if not at the same level of fury — to what Massachusetts’ huge number of anti-Trump activists are venting every day now.

The GOP challenger must advocate for what the overwhelming majority of our voters demand of Congress people and Senators : progressive on all the social issues, without reserve; strong for environmental reforms, for alternative energy, for universal health care; standing up to Russia; fairness for wage earners; organized consumerism; and immigration reform, including a path to legalization for the undocumented. I can’t see any candidate doing well, much less winning, who cannot take all these positions and hold fast to them without any and’s or but’s.

Can such a candidate win a Republican primary in which about half the voters oppose what the overwhelming Massachusetts majority stands for ? Can he or she win said primary without embracing President Trump, who remains broadly favored by Republican voters ? The only answer I can possibly give is that he or she will have to take that chance, or his or her campaign will end on primary night, win or no win.

And that is the easy part. Winning a primary in which only about 15 percent of the total November vote participates leaves our would be Warren challenger at the mercy of the other 85 percent. Many of these voters will show our candidate no mercy at all; yet some will be persuadable. Here’s what our candidate must be able to do :

1.he or she must be believed when advocating positions completely at odds with what most national Republicans stand for.

2.”control of the Senate’ will be a major issue. With the Senate split 52 Republicans to 48 Democrats, the last thing most Massachusetts voters want is to increase the Republican majority supporting Mr. Trump; indeed, most Massachusetts voters want the Senate to shift to Democratic control — this, the decisive factor in Warren’s 2012 defeat of Scott Brown. Today, given the radicalism of Mr. Trump, Democratic control of the Senate is more urgent than ever. So : how does our candidate overcome ? Only by making very clear — and being believed in saying it — that he or she will NOT under any circumstances vote for a Republican majority leader if the 2018 election result makes Massachusetts the deciding vote. In which case, our candidate will pledge to vote “present.”

4.Republican voters will not like this, but in Massachusetts only 11 percent of voters are GOP. A winning candidate has to get at least 80 percent of his or her winning (50 percent plus one) from people who are NOT Republican. Our candidate will have, somehow, to win his or her Republicans — only 20 percent of his or her total, but crucial — on the purely negative basis that he or she is not Liz Warren. And that entails risk. If anti-Warren voters see our candidate as anti-Warren, so will her supporters see it.

5.Warren does have some liabilities. many voters see her as a “talk horse,” not a “work horse.” She has certainly embraced that role. There is Massachusetts precedent : Charles Sumner has never been forgotten here for his tireless, and courageous, extremist advocacy of Abolition, for which he was beaten so badly it left him permanently injured. But where Sumner focused his outspeak on one subject, slavery, Warren has vented against all manner of opponents. Her voice has gained her enemies, enough that Senate majority leader McConnell found it advantageous to make her the icon of the Trump opposition, seeing Warren as a weaker Trump opponent than more mainstream Democrats.

Still, McConnell’s silencing cemented Warren’s iconic status here in Massachusetts. Any opponent needs to figure out how to respond to that. One effective way is to congratulate Warren for her speaking out while asking whether it has gained our state clout in Washington, or not ?

6.Organization and personality will be crucial. Our candidate must have a following of his or her own, preferably ethnic and thereby outside the ideological divide, and he or she must be willing, and able, to organize a personal (and ethnic, but more than ethnic) following, precinct by precinct, as did Bernie Sanders. Because the state’s Republican vote is so small, it will not be a factor in the organizing effort, which can proceed as if the candidate’s party registration didn’t even exist : Boston City Council elections provide a model.

Can such a candidacy be mounted ? Does a candidate exist who is capable of it ? If so, can that candidate speak with credibility and authority about the major substantive issues ? One friend has suggested that the right theme will be “I’m a workhorse, she’s a show horse” and “I’ll support Trump when he is right,  oppose him when he is wrong.” This sort of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington campaign message would be powerful in ordinary political times; but these are not ordinary times. Not with a radical incompetent like Mr. Trump wreaking chaos on a system despised by a systemically favored, albeit minority, group of voters at least as radical as Trump.

Lastly : all of the above changes if Mr. Trump is impeached and Mike Pence becomes President. Then we’re back to normal political times, and Mr. or Ms. Smith might just, possibly — if the luck is there, and Republican patience, and lots and lots of targeted effort — be able to go to Washington instead of Senator Warren. We’ll see.

—- Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere


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