The already meager ranks of female House Republicans had just been further decimated in the midterms when Rep. Ann Wagner was readying a play to head the party’s campaign arm — in the hopes of leading a recovery.
Wagner was indisputably well-credentialed for the job: The Missouri Republican had just won in a competitive district. She had experience raising money as finance director of the National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as past success helping Republican women win campaigns. A band of supportive lawmakers stood ready to vote her into the position.
But there was one major problem: House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy didn’t want her leading the NRCC. The California Republican called Wagner to express his preference for a far less prominent male lawmaker, Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, according to three sources familiar with the conversation. Wagner could have defied McCarthy — some lawmaker and aidesthought she’d win if she would have — but she realized doing so would create tension and would be counterproductive as the party tried to pivot toward 2020.
Wagner decided not to run.
“The leader had a different plan,” was all Wagner would say about her decision.
Some House Republican women are frustrated that their male counterparts aren’t taking the party’s problem with women seriously. After brutal midterm elections — in which suburban moms broke heavily from Republicans to back Democrats, and the number of GOP female lawmakers shrank from 23 to 13 — Republican women are telling their overwhelmingly male colleagues that if they don’t solve their women problem they won’t win back the majority.
Several Republican women are preparing their own plans to help their female colleagues, support women candidates and woo suburban women just in case nobody listens. Wagner, for example, is about to relaunch a “suburban caucus” in the House. The group will craft an agenda aimed at winning back suburban women by promoting issues like paid family leave and child care tax credits.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) also announced last week she would leave the NRCC for which she recently recruited a record number of GOP women to run. Instead, she’ll be building her own political operation helping those very Republican women win in primaries.
“I am going to keep pointing out to my colleagues that we are at a crisis level forGOP women,” Stefanik said in a recent interview. “This election should be a wake-up call to Republicans that we need to do better … We need to be elevating women’s voices, not suppressing them.”
In interviews with POLITICO, Republican women were divided about whether GOP leaders and their male colleagues were getting the message. In one of his first moves as NRCC chairman-elect, for example, Emmer told a reporter Stefanik’s idea to help female candidates in primaries was “a mistake.”
The backlash was swift. Emmer had to quickly clarifythat he meant specifically that the NRCC should not get involved in primaries. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), tweeted his support for Stefanik’s idea. And a group of GOP women rebuked Emmer for the comments.
“I’m sorry — Tom Emmer is wrong on this one,” said retiring Rep. Diane Black of Tennessee, who supported Stefanik in her first election and supports her primary idea. “To say what Elise is doing is a mistake? We need to applaud her. She’s filling a void.”
She added: “OK, the NRCC’s policy is that they are not going to help in the primary … But if [women] don’t get out of the primary, what good is that?”
Stefanik, for her part, tweeted Emmer’ comments out with a bit of her own sass.
“NEWSFLASH I wasn’t asking for permission,” she wrote with red sirens inserted into her feed.
Stefanik later told POLITICO in an interview that “Emmer’s tone has changed and has been a bit more respectful and encouraging of my efforts.”
In fact, Stefanik said she’s received a lot of support from colleagues since bringing upher concerns when lawmakers returned to Washington following the midterms. Stefanik is close with McCarthy, even nominating him to be minority leader. And shesaid the California Republican has been receptive to her message and is encouraging her to speak out.
Indeed, the NRCC has been on the defensive since Emmer’s comments, which come as the number of House GOP women is set to drop to the lowest number since 1994. When he takes office, Emmer plans to sit down with all 13 remaining GOP women for a candid tell-all “listening session” about what went wrong in 2018, according to an NRCC aide.
“You can’t not recognize the problem, the numbers are so terrible,” said an NRCC aide.
But it’s unclear whether that will be enough. Some women like Wagner are still frustrated that the gravity of the situation has yet to sink in, arguing that “I have seen no sign” of reflection. Even Stefanik is pushing her colleagues to conduct an “autopsy” of what happened and why they lost so many female voters and lawmakers this year.
“The next election should have started the night of Nov. 7, that’s how passionate and dedicated to it I am in moving toward building a conference that looks more like America — and certainly adding more women and diversity to our numbers,” Wagner said in a recent interview. “And if they get around to doing an autopsy and ‘lessons learned’ discussion, then great. But there are a number of us who are just going to forge ahead.”
Black and Wagner both support Stefanik’s plan to try to help GOP women win in primaries. Last cycle, Stefanik recruited around 100 female candidates to run but most of them lost in primaries.
Stafanik’s plan includes both financial support but also a sort of “boot camp” for female candidates with a focus on political strategy. Stefanik will also encourage women to embrace what makes them different. Some GOP women in the past have preferred to de-emphasize their gender, but some GOP women think maybe now they should talk about it more.
“When I ran in 2014 the first time, a lot of the advice was: ‘You need to sound like, act like, dress like a typical member of Congress,’ when the average age was about 60,” Stefanik said. “And I realized that was really bad advice. People are looking for authenticity so you should lean into what makes you different and what makes you unique.”
Black and Wagner both helped GOP women win elections in 2012, though it went largely unnoticed on Capitol Hill. The duo went on the road together to promote as many Republican women as possible ahead of the next midterms.
“We kind of looked at one another one day and said, ‘Let’s just do it, the NRCC isn’t gonna do it. Let’s go recruit us some good women,” Black said.
Wagner added: “You want the best candidate, you want the best person. But if in that field there’s a woman who does have the skills and the capacity and the ability to serve in Congress, we should be doing whatever we can to support her.”
As they crisscrossed the country, Black and Wagner coached roughly two dozen female GOP candidates as they battled tight primary races. They helped fund many of those campaigns — including Stefanik’s — and were successful at growing the number of GOP women in the House by five.
Now all but one are gone, including Reps. Mia Love of Utah, Mimi Walters of California and Barbara Comstock of Virginia, who just lost in November. “The only one left standing is Elise, and that’s disappointing,” Wagner said.
At the time they traveled the country, Black said she focused on teaching first-time candidates how to raise money. It’ssimply harder for women, she said, because they are still dealing with sexism from a male-dominated donor class.
One tip she swears by: If you’re asking for money from a man, invite his wife to lunch.
“Businessmen sometimes are a little bit cautious about giving women these big checks. If they’re married, they say they have to talk to their wife,” Black said. She added that she decided to start meeting with couples, which often yielded bigger checks.
After four successful congressional races, Black said fundraisingcan be infuriating for female candidates who are just as, if not more, qualified than men running in the same races. Over the years, she’s learned that a man can ask for $1,000 and receive the full amount, while she asks for $1,000 and will get only half.
Black took office in 2011, the same year the House designated its first women’s bathroom off the House floor. Then, there were 76 women serving in the chamber. When she leaves, there will be 103, nearly 90 percent of whom are Democrats.
“It’s so disappointing I could just scream,” Black said of the dwindling number of GOP women. “We have got to grow the women in our party.”
John Cornyn is facing a grievous insult during a last-ditch effort to pass criminal justice reform: Senate Republicans can’t trust their own whip’s count.
The Texas Republican and Senate whip has worked on the issue for years and is trying to win over the National Sheriffs Association in the latest effort to build more GOP support.
Yet Republicans pushing the sentencing and prison reform bill privately and publicly say he’s essentially undermining the push by not accurately assessing support for it or supporting it himself, a charge Cornyn rejects.
Cornyn has to juggle his own personal views of the effort with his job as deputy to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has long been reluctant to take up the bill because it sharply divides his conference — even with a coveted endorsement from President Donald Trump.
The result is that Cornyn finds himself in the middle of an internal GOP firefight in the final days of the lame duck. And with his vote-counting acumen under attack from outside the Capitol, Cornyn said he finds the criticism “bizarre” as he deals with the warring factions of his party and a year-end time crunch.
“This is something I’ve supported a long, long time. I had a conservation as recently as this morning with National Sheriffs Association and the head of the Texas Sheriffs Association to try and get this thing where actually more of the Republican conference would support it,” Cornyn said Monday. “The criticism is either from people who don’t understand what the job of the whip is, or how actually legislation gets passed.”
He added one last brushback to his critics: Advocates’ “energy is best channeled into trying to get more votes. And not attack the messenger.”
But Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said Cornyn and McConnell’s internal whip count hasn’t moved even as Republicans have continued to build support for the bill. Grassley said his effort has “gone from a lot less than 30” Republicans to 30 of 51 in the Senate GOP and that he’s puzzled at why Cornyn isn’t one of them when Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) endorsed the bill last week.
With Democrats taking back the House and a fragile compromise hanging in the balance, as Grassley put it: “What more do you need from a law enforcement standpoint than a guy like Cruz?!”
“His state has been very successful at reforms. And that’s saving lots of money. So I’m just a little confused. I’m just a little confused,” Grassley said. “Common sense tells me he needs to be for it.”
Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Cornyn is “navigating” a difficult situation as well as he can. But he too said GOP leaders are underestimating the bill’s support.
Cornyn’s “hotter on it than the majority leader is,” Flake said of the criminal justice reform. But according to his “unscientific” whip count “there’s a pretty good majority for it.”
The skirmish comes at an inflection point for Cornyn. He has just three weeks left in the party leadership due to term limits and is beginning to prepare for a re-election campaign following the strongest Democratic performance in Texas in decades. He’s also dealing with a fight over Trump’s border wall and must make sure the GOP has the votes to prevent a partial government shutdown.
McConnell (R-Ky.), meanwhile, has repeatedly stated there’s probably not enough room in the schedule to move the criminal justice bill. Yet he’s also not entirely ruled out action, giving advocates a ray of hope for the latest version of the bill, which still has not been introduced.
Cornyn was a lead sponsor of sweeping criminal justice reform during Barack Obama’s presidency that never become law, but argued for a narrower proposal when the law-and-order Trump took office. But now Trump is endorsing a broader package that includes both prison and sentencing reforms and is urging passage of the bipartisan agreement before the GOP loses unified control of Congress.
The No. 2 Senate Republican says he hopes the Congress can get it done. But given his track record on the issue and unique position of influence, advocates for the sentencing reform say Cornyn should be doing more even as Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) offers biting criticisms of the bill.
Grassley and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have publicly touted the swelling support, in contrast to Cornyn. The Dallas Morning News asserted Cornyn has been “tepid” in his leadership on the issue. And longtime reformers say Cornyn is getting cold feet.
“I have no sympathy for John Cornyn. None. If he’s in an awkward spot it’s because he put himself here,” said Jason Pye, the vice president of legislative affairs for FreedomWorks, a supporter of the reform bill who also blamed McConnell for not scheduling a vote. “If we don’t get this across the finish line, the person I will blame is John Cornyn.”
Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network, accused Cornyn of providing McConnell with an inaccurate whip count last week. On Monday, Harris seemed more optimistic about Cornyn’s involvement, though she said because of the “craziness of the competing whips, there’s a lot of frustration in the reform community.”
“We’re hearing very positive things about his engagement,” Harris said as the bill’s supporters prepared to release their final compromise. “Sen. Cornyn is a powerful man. He hails from a place that is considered the birthplace of criminal justice reform. … You always have a complicated situation when you’re a member of leadership.”
Indeed, Cornyn’s role in the GOP at this moment would be difficult for anyone: McConnell is “really reluctant” to bring the bill to the floor, Grassley said. And Cornyn’s job is to assess support for the legislation in the caucus. He can’t exactly twist arms for the bill if McConnell is simply trying to get a dispassionate view of the conference, even if supporters think a lot of undecided Republicans would vote “yes” if forced to.
“My job as whip is to give Leader McConnell an accurate count of where the conference is. Because he doesn’t want to put anything on the floor and be surprised,” Cornyn said. “A majority of the conference either whipped ‘no’ or ‘undecided.’ And we need to get those undecideds into the ‘yes’ column to get at least a majority of a majority in favor of the bill. And I think that will be persuasive.”
A GOP senator said that internally, many Republicans are declining to take a firm position, making it more difficult to truly gauge support. Cornyn’s allies also believe Grassley and Lee are being overly optimistic in how they are reading backing for the bill.
But Cornyn’s influence alone could help Republicans get over the top given his reputation as a leader on the criminal justice issue.
“If they’re able to get it done it’s because, in part, he brought people on,” said one Republican senator, who estimated 20 of the GOP’s 51 members are locked in as supporters of the bill. “He’s one of the few who could.”
In some ways Cornyn is hamstrung from his role in leadership and deference to McConnell. But if there’s ever a time for him to exert his influence on a topic he’s passionate about, now might be his last, best shot.
“He’s part of leadership. And he probably has to do what leadership asks him to do,” Grassley said. “And I don’t know anything about that.”
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows wrote a secret memo last month about how House Republicans could counter Democratic plans to investigate and potentially impeach Donald Trump.
Now, the president is eyeing the North Carolina Republican — one of his closest allies on Capitol Hill — to replace outgoing chief of staff John Kelly in part because of that insight.
“Serving as Chief of Staff would be an incredible honor,” Meadows told POLITICO Playbook. “The President has a long list of qualified candidates and I know he’ll make the best selection for his administration and for the country.“
Should Trump tap Meadows for the job, he’d be securing an astute political operative who’s made it his mission to defend Trump from embarrassing headlines.
Meadows and his best friend Rep. Jim Jordan, a Fox News TV star and hero on the right, have almost single-handedly pushed Republican chairmen and GOP leaders to start counter-investigations of the FBI’s handling of the Russia investigation, a key talking point for Trump who’s panned the probe as a “witch hunt.”
The duo is often on TV assailing special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and touting Trump’s legislative achievements. And with Mueller closing in on Trump and newly empowered Democrats eager to highlight scandal out of the West Wing, Meadows’ knowledge of Congress and willingness to fight for him has appealed to Trump, White House insiders say.
“He’d have a keen sense of what to do, what groups to engage with, what events to hold, going into a hyper political time,” said one White House official who asked not to be named. “He also knows oversight better than most. Going into a Democratic House takeover, he would know tools Republicans have at their disposal to push back on Democrats better than anyone.”
Some top Trump allies are publicly urging the president to pick Meadows.
“Meadows understands the oversight process, the media, and how to pick fights we can win,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz who said he’s doing “all I can to encourage the president to pick him.” “I lobbied the president the best way I know how. I made the Meadows case on Fox News.”
Meadows’ ascent to the position is far from a done deal. While he and Trump speak frequently if not daily by phone, the president is also considering several others for the job.
While sources close with Meadows believe he’s open to the job and would serve if asked, they also noted the political risks involved. While the position of chief of staff was once revered, it could amount to political suicide under Trump.
Meadow would have to relinquish his influential position in the GOP conference, not to mention his seat in Congress, for a job that would likely be his last in politics. With allegations of collusion, corruption and campaign finance violations haunting the president, the job might quickly turn dirty — a challenging feat for a man who at times seems to be sensitive to his reputation.
Still, the opportunity might be once in a life time and comes as Meadows’ influence in the House is set to wane. With Republicans losing control of the chamber, the Freedom Caucus’ relevancy will be diminished.
What’s more, Meadows had initially hoped to lead the House Oversight Committee GOP as Trump’s top defender against Democratic investigations, which was why he recently wrote a memo on countering Democratic investigations. He stepped aside at the last minute, however, so Jordan could become ranking member of that panel.
Meadows could also face opposition from Republicans across Washington that undercut his effectiveness as White House chief. As the Freedom Caucus leader, he’s made many enemies both inside the Capitol and out and has a long, difficult relationship with the GOP establishment.
Meadows first made a name for himself when he filed a “motion to vacate” on ex-Speaker John Boehner, a procedural maneuver meant to boot the Ohio Republican from power. Boehner resigned not long after. Since then, Meadows has been a pain in the side of GOP leaders, circumventing Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to get what he wants on policy matters.
During the Obamacare repeal effort in the House, for example, Meadows leveraged the Freedom Caucus numbers to make policy changes favored to conservatives, including targeting pre-existing conditions protections that would later haunt the majority on the campaign trail.
Meadows did the same thing for tax reform, appealing to Trump directly to land wins for the right.
When Freedom Caucus members ultimately endorsed both of those pieces of legislation, Meadows ensured the White House knew of his role in taming the rebellious group to help bring a bill over the finish line, White House sources said.
“He was skillful in playing it such that he emerged in Trump’s mind as one of the heroes who helped get health care reform done” in the House, said a former White House official, even though the bill later died in the Senate.
Critics of Meadows — namely GOP establishment types — say he would likely appeal to Trump’s worst instincts. He and Jordan have long championed using government shutdowns to get what they want. During last spring’s spending fight, they called Trump personally to encourage him to veto a spending deal Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell struck with Democrats.
Perhaps that’s why Trump World insiders say the president views Meadows as a sort of gut-check on all issues of importance to the base.
White House officials describe Meadows as “a man on a mission trying to charm the president.” From the outset of the administration, Meadows’ energetic defenses of Trump on television earned him several invitations to the Oval Office for signing ceremonies, where Trump advisers noticed he would linger to regale the president with compliments.
Among other things, Meadows has been overheard telling Trump what a historic leader he is, how extraordinary and unprecedented the Trump administration is and how awful the media can be — though he gabs with reporters frequently and often in the hallways of the Hill. He’s complained to him about the Mueller investigation as well, ingratiating himself further with the president.
Despite his reputation as a hardliner, however, Meadows is at times sensitive to being seen as a partisan. In person, he’s a people-pleaser, often torn between his ideological inclinations and his desire to make a deal with his political opposites.
In the House, he has friendly relationships with Democrats, including incoming Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings, at least for now. He’s tried to befriend moderate Republicans as well, but ended up burning bridges with some when he walked away from immigration negotiations with them earlier this year.
In Russia matters, Meadows has been on the front lines of the Republican effort in the House to suggest anti-Trump bias has tainted the FBI’s ongoing probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. He’s one of six Republicans on a small task force that has hauled in Justice Department and FBI officials to grill them about their handling of the Russia probe and GOP allegations that they downplayed the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server in favor of a focus on Trump.
Democrats have blasted that effort as a hyper-partisan push to shield Trump as the investigations become increasingly perilous to him, his business and his family.
Meadows was in the fray as recently as Friday, when he pressed former FBI Director James Comey behind closed doors about the FBI’s surveillance of a former Trump campaign associate whose Russia contacts were under scrutiny using a so-called FISA warrant. He also grilled Comey on interactions between the FBI’s general counsel and a law firm associated with the Democratic National Committee.
Meadows has also forcefully agitated for the removal of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein and pushed to hold him in contempt of Congress for what he claimed was slow-walking the production of documents connected to the Russia probe.
He was one of the earliest voices in Congress seeking Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ resignation for what he said was a failure to police the Russia investigation. And Meadows has been a vocal advocate for Trump to declassify reams of documents connected to the Russia probe, a move Trump seemed to embrace in September before backing down after citing pushback from a foreign partner.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has the core of her 2020 team in place if she runs for president. She has the seed money — there’s $12.5 million ready to go, left from her recent Senate run — and a massive email list she’s amassed over years, boosted by a $3.3 million investment in digital infrastructure and advertising in the last election alone. Her aides have been quietly shopping for presidential campaign headquarters space in the Boston area in recent weeks, according to a source with knowledge of the move.
All that’s left is for her to give the green light.
When and if she does, she’ll be rolling out arguably the most advanced and sweeping infrastructure in the Democratic field, a plug-and-play campaign that couldgive her a massive head start on nearly every contender in the burgeoning primary roster, with onlySens.Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) coming close.
So far, Warren has merely said she would “take a hard look” at running for president. People with knowledge of her strategy said she has not yet made a final decision but if she joins the field, Warren will be among the earlier candidates to announce.
In the five weekssince the midterm elections, Warren has operated like a candidate.
She began interviewing national operatives for senior positions in a possible presidential campaign before the midterms. Currently, there are discussions with veteran early-state political operatives, including in Iowa, about the possibility of signing on, though no contracts have been yet signed. And if Warren moves forward with a presidential bid, she will do so with the nucleus of a team she’s trusted for years and build from there, sources with knowledge of the operation tell POLITICO.
One major player already is Dan Geldon, a longtime Warren staffer and onetime Harvard Law School student under Warren who also served as her Senate chief of staff for three years.Sources with knowledge of the campaign say the senator is eyeing Geldon to take on the role of campaign manager. Other core staffers likely to be part of a Warren presidential team are finance director Michael Pratt;former Harry Reid aideKristen Orthman, who handles communications; Gabrielle Farrell, who most recently headed communications for the New Hampshire Democratic Party; and Roger Lau, campaign manager for Warren’s Senate reelection who also has New Hampshire experience.
The campaign-in-waiting is working with the mail firm Deliver Strategies, and the digital firms Bully Pulpit and Blue State.
Just below the top ranks, the Massachusetts senator has a nearly full-blown enterprise prepped for deployment: More than 50 people were reported on Warren’s latest campaign payroll, which counts field workers. In addition, several dozen more staffers who assisted Warren in her Senate campaign and were part of the Massachusetts Democratic Party payroll could be tapped to move into a presidential campaign.
“It looks like she has her national apparatus in place and all she has to do is pull the trigger,” said Jim Demers, a New Hampshire-based consultant who served as state campaign co-chair for Barack Obama and for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “I think a big part of it is, there’s a lot of candidates who are going to do some hard thinking over the holiday weeks to say it’s a go or not a go.”
The senator herself has been busy personally calling scoresof Democrats in the four early presidential states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, reaching out to former and recently elected officials, those who ran for office unsuccessfully, labor leaders and grass-roots activists.
According to more than a half dozen people who said they had received calls or spoken to others who had, Warren poses similar questions on the calls: “What have you learned in 2018? I’m thinking about running. What do you think?”
“I think she’s very serious in taking a look at this,” said a former elected official in Iowa who was among those to speak to Warren but who requested anonymity. That person said Warren said she was planning to visit Iowa in short order, but didn’t give a specific timeline.“She asked me what I thought would be the issues and what she should be talking about and listening for.”
A person with knowledge of Warren’s strategy estimatedshe contacted some 100 people in the early presidential states since the midterms.
“Let me say that of all the people who are running that I can see from my perspective — and I don’t have visibility into everything everybody is doing — there isn’t anybody who had done more to position themselves for 2020 than she had up to that point,” Longtime Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod said of Warren in a recent taping of Politico’s “Off Message” podcast. “I’ve talked to a bunch of candidates who said, ‘You wouldn’t believe who called me on election night. Like, the first call I got was from Elizabeth Warren,’ winners and losers. And she has a full staff going just to service 2018 candidates and provide assistance in whatever way they need it. That’s shrewd. I mean, she’s laid out some policy positions on reform, for example, that are shrewd positions, important positions. I’ve been impressed by that.”
Warren invested heavily in the midterm elections, even as she was running for reelection back home, raising or donating nearly $11 million on Democrats. She deployed staff to each of the early states, sent out emails on behalf of midterm candidates and recorded a video to Iowa Democrats, urging them to vote.
“If you live in Iowa, always, always answer Unknown calls,” longtime Iowa field organizer and activist Kimberly Strope-Boggusposted on Facebook last week. “Missed Elizabeth Warrens call … sad face.”
What Warren didn’t do, however, is actually visit Iowa or New Hampshire, unlike a slew of potential candidates with whom she’ll likely compete. But unlike many of them, she had a reelection campaign back home in 2018, and a need to show strength in her home state performance.
Strope-Boggus said she never reconnected with Warren by phone but noted that she’s already personally met several 2020 potential candidates, including Harris, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, California Rep. Eric Swalwell and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, among others. Booker not only took a selfie with her, but mailed her a copy of the photo complete with a personal note of thanks.
“For all of those candidates, elected officials who put resources here in Iowa, I’m very grateful, I will remember that when it comes to caucus,” Strope-Boggus said, adding that she hopes Warren is soon added to the list but didn’t hold it against her for not showing up thus far. “Merkley, Swalwell, [former Vice President Joe] Biden made a stop through here. That’s just to name a few of them. Those who came and helped in the midterm, that means a lot because they not only care about the nation but Iowa as well.”
Yet even as Warren’s robust, would-be presidential campaign is ready for takeoff operationally, recent stumbles have raised concerns about her durability. Chief among them was her rollout of a DNA test and video, which attempted to put to rest nettlesomequestions about her Native American heritage — an issue President Donald Trump delights in mocking, derisively calling Warren “Pocahontas.”
The senator’s effort backfired, only bringing more attention to the issue and leading Democrats to accuse Warren of playing right into Trump’s hands.
At home, where she was recently elected to a second term, there are few signs of an outpouring of support for a 2020 bid. A September poll of Massachusetts voters showed only 32 percent wanted her to run for president, compared with 33 percent favoring a run by former Sen. John Kerry, and 38 percent saying former Gov. Deval Patrick should launch a presidential bid.
While Patrick’s decision last week to bow out of the 2020 race was viewed as a potential benefit to Warren, freeing up Massachusetts-based operatives, donors and activists who might have otherwise been conflicted over the two, any relief was short-lived. Two days later, The Boston Globe — her hometown paper, with a circulation that reaches into New Hampshire — panned her White House prospects.
“Warren missed her moment in 2016, and there’s reason to be skeptical of her prospective candidacy in 2020. While Warren won reelection, her margin of victory in November suggests there’s a ceiling on her popularity; Baker garnered more votes than she did in a state that is supposed to be a Democratic haven,” The Boston Globe editorial board wrote. “While Warren is an effective and impactful senator with an important voice nationally, she has become a divisive figure.”
Donald Trump’s meeting Tuesday with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer may go a long way toward determining whether the government enters a partial shutdown before Christmas.
But as Democrats seriously re-engage with Trump for the first time in nearly a year, their broad distrust of the president has expectations for a deal at rock bottom.
“We’ve had limited success in dealing with this president,” said Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “His word isn’t good. Within 48 hours he reverses himself. It’s very difficult to enter into a long-term agreement.”
The House and Senate Democratic leaders have been here before. Multiple times over the past two years they thought they’d cut a deal with Trump only to see him swiftly trash “Chuck and Nancy” and demand hefty conservative concessions.
Now Trump is threatening to shut down a large swath of the federal government if he doesn’t get billions in funding for his border wall.
But Democrats say they have no reason to think talks this week will end differently than they have in the past, according to interviews with more than a half-dozen House and Senate Democrats. And the Democratic leaders — constrained by an aggressive left flank in the party — are in no mood to even try to strike a sweeping immigration deal like in past negotiations.
Previously, they offered as much as $25 billion for Trump’s border wall in exchange for protecting 1.7 million young undocumented immigrants from deportation. That’s no longer on the table.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said of such a trade these days: “I wouldn’t support it.”
“We’ve said we’ll fund the wall in exchange for addressing the Dreamers and immigration issues. He said ‘fine,’ and then he reneged,” Shaheen said.
“I understand their concerns,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally who was undercut by the White House earlier this year during immigration negotiations. “It’s tougher around here now. We’ve had two or three stops and starts with immigration.”
Schumer and Pelosi have tried to project unity in recent days, saying they won’t give Trump the $5 billion he’s asking for and calling to keep Department of Homeland Security spending at current levels if needed to keep the government open.
But even as the Democratic leaders look to avoid a shutdown, they don’t have complete freedom to maneuver.
Pelosi is working to win over 218 Democratic votes for her speaker bid and can’t afford to alienate an emboldened left wing of her caucus. Schumer, too, is trying to brush off criticisms over his negotiating record from liberals who think he shouldn’t give the president any spending at all on a border barrier, even as Congress provided more than a billion dollars last year.
Pelosi has previewed her posture in recent remarks, saying she wants to punt the debate altogether with a stopgap Homeland Security funding bill.
In some ways, Pelosi is negotiating with Trump as much as she is with her own caucus. The California Democrat is just weeks away from clinching the speaker’s gavel for the second time but is currently short of the votes.
Pelosi knows she can’t be perceived by her caucus as acquiescing to Trump. That could anger many of the Democrats she’s counting on to deliver her the speakership, a group that includes incoming freshmen who want to abolish some immigration enforcement programs entirely.
Pelosi’s supporters say they’re confident of her position and that the longtime Democratic leader knows there’s “no compromise” with the president on his wall.
“I don’t think she would agree to [additional wall funding],” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “I think the reason she has such support is that people believe she understands the lines beyond which we can’t compromise.”
Schumer, meanwhile, has endorsed a bipartisan Senate bill that provides $1.6 billion for “fencing” along the border. House Democrats are opposed to the Senate bill despite the fact many of them voted for a similar, if smaller, amount of border security funding earlier this year.
Rep. Filemon Vela of Texas, one of a dozen-plus Democrats working to block Pelosi’s speaker bid, has been sharply critical of the California Democrat in the past but trusts Pelosi much more than Schumer in talks with Trump.
“This is a New York City conspiracy, and Schumer is on the verge of giving Trump his third down payment on the wall,” Vela said.
While Republicans in the House could potentially round up enough votes to pass a government funding deal on their own, Senate GOP leaders will need at least a handful of Democrats to pass anything, giving Schumer significant leverage in funding talks.
“[Pelosi’s] position in that meeting is meaningless unless she and those of us who oppose the wall funding can ensure that we bring all the other Democrats along for the ride,” Vela said. “You might as well call this the Schumer-Trump wall in my view.”
Senate Democrats who know Schumer well said House Democrats are misreading the Senate leader.
“I would challenge whether there is much of a relationship with President Trump,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland said of the current Schumer-Trump dynamic.
Sure, he’s open to talking to Trump, but the idea that the fix is in and Schumer will backstab liberals to help the president is pure fiction, they say.
“Schumer is a person who, if it doesn’t go well today, he’ll still get up tomorrow and say: ‘Is there a path forward?’ So he’s not going to let the president tweet something negative, make him mad and hold a grudge,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
But Kaine cast doubt on the idea that there’s even an agreement to be had with Trump: “For him, immigration is about waving a bloody shirt before an election. If there’s a deal, what is there for him to talk about?”
But there needs to be a breakthrough if there’s any way around a shutdown on Christmas. Roughly a quarter of the government will shutter on Dec. 21 absent a funding agreement, and though congressional Republicans and Democrats would probably be able to avoid it on their own, Trump must sign any bill — facing the choice of either backing down or digging in for a long confrontation.
He’s made clear in meetings with Republicans that he wants $5 billion for the border wall in whatever he signs, which could give his reelection effort a boost by delivering on one of his key campaign pledges.
“We’ve basically worked out most of our funding. Most of it. Except the linchpin there,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), referring to the border funding. “And that is the difference between the Democrats and the president.”
On cue, the president crowed over the wall in an appearance in Kansas City on Friday, declaring “it will be better than anybody’s ever seen” when he builds it. But to do so, he needs a lame-duck Congress to rally behind him, one with a House GOP majority limping out the door and Democrats digging in to stop Trump from claiming any victories.
With Democrats just weeks away from seizing control of the House, Vela said now is the time for his party to “draw a line in the sand.”
“If there were ever a time to send Trump a message, it’s now,” he said.