Long before Senator Bernie Sanders was chastising “millionaires and billionaires” at packed rallies during the 2016 Democratic primary campaign, Elizabeth Warren laid out a progressive economic agenda for an audience in a house in Andover. In the summer of 2011, Warren spoke in a Massachusetts living room, to gain support for her nascent Senate campaign. By the time potential supporters packed into the suburban living room to hear Warren speak, she had burnished her credentials as a servant of the economically downtrodden. As a professor at Harvard Law School, she was perhaps best known at the time for proposing that the government create an agency to protect consumers. She was the driving ideological force behind the newly-established Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act.
According to Doug Rubin, a senior strategist for the 2012 Warren campaign who currently teaches a course at Tufts, the candidate’s speech before a living room full of enraptured citizens was nothing out of the ordinary. The only difference was in the audience: someone was filming, and later posted it on YouTube. The video quickly went viral, not only cementing Warren’s status as a candidate, but as a burgeoning progressive icon.
“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” Warren said in a speech punctuated by cheers. “You built a factory out there, good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate.” This moment exposed Warren’s theory of America and the reason she was running: she believed that the economic fates of everyone in the country were intertwined.
“You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea, God bless. Keep a big hunk of it,” Warren said. “But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
The video generated widespread enthusiasm for Warren’s 2012 campaign against Republican incumbent Senator Scott Brown, elevating the race to a national affair with an unprecedented level of media attention. The Warren and Brown campaigns spent a combined $68 million during the campaign, breaking Massachusetts fundraising and spending records to date.
Brown had swept into office in a special election in 2010 after the death of Senator Edward Kennedy, capitalizing on right-wing populist sentiment which presaged the rise of the Tea Party and the Democrats’ disastrous losses in midterm elections later that year. In an attempt by both candidates to eschew the political establishment and big donors, they agreed to refuse any outside funding from super PACs. Rubin noted that much of Warren’s campaign funding had been raised through small-dollar donations gathered through her website. He believes that this grassroots enthusiasm propelled her to victory, and anticipated the $27-donation success of Sanders years later. Warren has said that she wants to adhere to this policy again for her 2018 campaign.
Back in 2011, when that video was filmed, Elizabeth Warren was a political unknown. Today, she is not only one of the country’s most outspoken legislators—she is a symbol. She was assiduously courted for an endorsement by both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns during the primaries, although she declined to endorse anyone until June, when she publicly supported Hillary Clinton. She taunted Trump on Twitter during the campaign, and has continued to criticize him into his presidency.
Her ascendance as a national figure was perhaps encapsulated best by the words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell when he justified an action Senate Republicans took to silence Warren during a speech criticizing future Attorney General Jeff Sessions. These three sentences by McConnell turned Warren into both a meme and a feminist icon: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Warren has become the face of the movement to remake the Democratic Party, for better or possibly for worse. To right-wing partisans, she is an emblem of everything that is wrong with liberal ideology. Warren’s name is so tied to liberalism that the National Republican Senatorial Committee has created ads with her as the focal point, targeting red state Democratic senators. The hope is that Warren is so unappealing to moderates that independent voters will see a Democratic candidate as being allied with Warren and then immediately vote for the Republican.
“She’s a divisive figure,” said Political Science Professor Jeffrey Berry, explaining that her high visibility could be a turnoff for moderate voters in Massachusetts. “She’s controversial in the sense of being an aggressive partisan.”
In January, Warren announced that she was running for reelection, specifically on the platform of relentless opposition to President Trump’s agenda.
“She’s a nemesis of the president,” Berry said. He believes that unless Warren has a viable Republican opponent, the upcoming race will play out as a national rather than a local one, with Warren running against Trump’s ideology more than anything else. He also thinks that the 2018 senatorial campaign is likely to receive attention beyond the Boston media market, regardless of who becomes Warren’s eventual opponent.
“It’s easy to say that she’s going to get a lot of visibility on MSNBC,” Berry said, adding that Fox News would also cover the 2018 campaign eagerly, although from a different ideological perspective.
Rubin suggested that Warren’s high-profile status in the Democratic Party will lead to an incredibly visible campaign, perhaps resulting in more media attention than for the one in 2012.
“Given her high-profile back and forth with President Trump, and her success on the national stage as one of the more prominent leaders on progressive issues, I think it is highly likely that out-of-state interests spend a lot of time and money attacking her in 2018,” Rubin said. Currently, only one candidate has declared that he is running against Warren—businessman Shiva Ayyadurai. However, Rubin thinks that if State Representative Geoff Diehl, a staunch supporter of the president, decided to run for Senate, it would turn the race into a referendum on President Trump and exacerbate the high levels of outside media coverage.
Rubin believes that Warren’s visibility in national politics will work to her benefit. “I think her popularity helps her because Massachusetts voters see her fighting for issues and values that they support, and they want their elected officials to be effective and lead those fights,” he said.
Nonetheless, a WBUR poll published in January suggests that Warren should not become too complacent. The poll found that 44 percent of respondents think that she “deserves reelection,” while 46 percent think that the senator should “give someone else a chance.” Fifty-one percent of Massachusetts voters were found to have a favorable opinion of Warren. A moderate Republican, Charlie Baker, recently became governor, and it is possible that Warren’s notoriety on the national stage has disaffected independent voters.
Despite these concerns, Rubin thinks that the senator has not changed dramatically from the candidate who spoke in a living room in Andover, though she now has a larger audience, able to reach thousands in rallies and millions through her Twitter handle.
“I think Senator Warren has remained remarkably consistent, which is very hard to do in today’s political environment. She’s been able to do that because she has such a strong moral core,” Rubin said. “The issues that I first discussed with her when she was considering running in 2012 are the same issues she spoke about during that first campaign, and they are the same issues she has worked on every day in the US Senate.”
Berry agreed that, despite Warren’s fiery rhetoric and the media coverage that she has received, her fame is well-earned.
“She’s achieved her notoriety by her substance,” he said. “She’s been a powerful force for working people.”
As Warren ends her first term as senator and begins her campaign for reelection, her contributions to American politics and policy should not be ignored. When asked if he had any recommendations for Warren’s 2018 campaign team, Rubin demurred.
“Honestly, I would tell her to keep doing what she is doing. She’s clearly been an effective and persuasive voice in support of issues and values that most people in Massachusetts support,” he said.
Whereas the Democratic establishment across the country appears to be reevaluating its values, Warren has a solid grasp on what the message should be. Ironically, it’s a message not wholly unlike President Trump’s promise to make America great again—a populist battle cry for eliminating economic inequality. Regardless of her fame or her notoriety, Warren’s message is making an impact. On April 11, she published on Twitter that almost 16,000 people across Massachusetts had donated to her reelection campaign. It may be the end of one Senate term, of one presidential era—but for Elizabeth Warren, the movement is only just beginning.