MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — A nearly yearlong run of goodwill between two of the leading progressives in the 2020 presidential race, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders, appears to be evaporating in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses.
On Sunday, Warren said she was “disappointed” that Sanders’ campaign had been using a script for volunteers that suggested she was appealing mainly to highly educated voters and would not be able to expand the Democratic Party coalition.
“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” Warren, of Massachusetts, said. “I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction.”
After months of studiously avoiding any negative words about Sanders, Warren went on to cite the divisiveness of the 2016 primary race between Sanders and Hillary Clinton, implying it had helped President Donald Trump. “We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016, and we can’t have a repeat of that,” she warned. “Democrats need to unite our party, and that means pulling in all parts of the Democratic coalition.”
In a rare question-and-answer session with reporters after his final event of a weekend Iowa swing, Sanders — in response to a question on whether he approved of his campaign’s criticism of Warren — denied responsibility for the script, saying he himself had never attacked Warren. And he blamed the news media for overstating the tension between the two campaigns. “I got to tell you, I think this is a little bit of a media blowup that kind of wants conflict,” he said.
“Elizabeth Warren is a very good friend of mine,” Sanders, of Vermont, said. “We have worked together in the Senate for years. Elizabeth Warren and I will continue to work together. We will debate the issues.
“No one is going to trash Elizabeth Warren,” he added.
The Sanders campaign did not provide any further information on the script. Pressed again on the topic, Sanders said, “We have hundreds of employees. Elizabeth Warren has hundreds of employees. And people sometimes say things that they shouldn’t. You have heard me give many speeches. Have I ever said one negative word about Elizabeth Warren?”
The exchange Sunday — just two days after a major Iowa poll showed them in first and second place in the state — was a rare fraying of a de facto nonaggression pact the two senators have shared since the beginning of the primary race. On the debate stage, they have often formed a progressive tag team of sorts, defending their far-reaching policy proposals against criticism from moderates that they were unrealistic. This was perhaps never clearer than when Warren, answering a debate question, declared “I’m with Bernie” on the issue of “Medicare for All.”
In recent weeks, Sanders has indicated a willingness to draw more direct contrasts with Warren: At an event on New Year’s Eve, he highlighted a subtle policy distinction with her over their health care plans.
But until Sunday, the two liberal senators, who are each other’s chief ideological rivals, were wary of saying anything inflammatory about the other.
That changed swiftly after Politico published a report late Saturday night on the talking points for Sanders volunteers, known as a call script. Its authenticity was not disputed by the Sanders campaign. It begins: “I like Elizabeth Warren. (optional) In fact, she’s my second choice. But here’s my concern about her. The people who support her are highly educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what.”
It goes on: “She’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”
A top Warren supporter in Iowa, state Sen. Claire Celsi, strongly disputed that argument and said she was unsurprised that the Sanders campaign was leveling it. “Doesn’t surprise me about Bernie,” she said. “He went straight to the gutter with Hillary. More of the same.”
The Sanders campaign declined to comment. His national press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, wrote on Twitter that “Warren has plenty to recommend her” but that “only Bernie’s volunteer army, fundraising numbers, and popularity with a diverse working-class coalition can compete” with Trump.
The back-and-forth with Warren is only one of several fronts that the Sanders campaign opened in recent days. On his first weekend as a front-runner in Iowa — after his first-place finish in the poll by The Des Moines Register/CNN — his campaign advisers also fervently attacked former Vice President Joe Biden for his record on the Iraq War, lodging repeated salvos on Twitter and in a statement late Saturday.
In his session with reporters, Sanders said he was doing nothing more than running a campaign.
Asked about Biden, Sanders — who has long been averse to political catfights — suggested his recent offensive was part of the game of politics. “We are going to be talking about the record,” he said. “People are talking about my record. I was just asked a question about my record. That’s kind of what a campaign is about. We will contrast records — nothing wrong with that.”
Warren’s campaign has begun to project her as a “unity candidate” — “We need someone who will excite every part of the Democratic Party,” she told reporters Sunday — and her latest big-name endorser, former housing secretary Julián Castro, has sharpened that message as a cudgel against her rivals.
“About 25% of the folks out there — when you look at Democrats — about 25%, for instance, say they would be unhappy if Vice President Biden was the nominee.” Castro said in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Sunday. “About 25% say that they would be unhappy if Sen. Sanders were the nominee. The person that scores the best on that, who people are good with, that they would get out there and vote if they’re the nominee, is Elizabeth Warren.”
Still, Sanders is not the first to try to pigeonhole Warren as the candidate of the elites. Biden did so last fall, irritating Warren’s allies. In a Medium post in November, Biden accused Warren, though not by name, of engaging in a “‘my way or the highway’ approach to politics.”
“It’s condescending to the millions of Democrats who have a different view,” Biden wrote at the time. “It’s representative of an elitism that working and middle-class people do not share: ‘We know best; you know nothing.’ ”
On Sunday, Warren’s campaign and supporters pushed back at the idea that she had an affluent-only coalition.
“I earned my GED before going to a state school and I am proud to support Elizabeth Warren!” Roger Lau, Warren’s campaign manager, wrote on Twitter.