After rising to prominence as an unapologetic crusader against money in politics, Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has crossed her own red line and embraced a once forbidden tool: a super PAC.
The move was unthinkable to the liberal Democrat just several months ago, when she publicly denounced the decision of “any Democratic candidate” to “reverse course and endorse the use of unlimited contributions from the wealthy.”
But times have changed.
After a disappointing duo of early state finishes and dwindling time, the Massachusetts senator declared this week that she would not disavow money from a political action committee that recently popped up in her name.
“If all the candidates want to get rid of super PACs, count me in. I’ll lead the charge,” Warren said in Las Vegas on Thursday. “But that’s how it has to be. It can’t be the case that a bunch of people keep them and only one or two don’t.”
The metamorphosis happened gradually. The candidate who once promised to not attack other Democrats, including her rivals, had been trying out lines of contrast since early voting commenced. But her transformation accelerated rapidly this week, where she launched full throttle jabs at not only her chief adversaries, but closest political allies. And, in a stunning change of direction, the candidate ardent about disavowing big money in politics seemed newly at peace with easing her stance on campaign cash.
By the afternoon, former aides and allies of 2020 candidates who dropped out, largely over a lack of money, were mystified, with several using the word “hypocrisy” to describe what they contended was a stark shift in posture from the candidate’s consistent messaging.
“It’s a level of political hypocrisy that most people who watch from afar hate about politics,” said Democratic commentator Bakari Sellers, who previously endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) before she ended her campaign after bleeding money in early December. “You have these purity tests that you don't ascribe to yourself.”
One aide to a former presidential aspirant texted three emojis showing clenched teeth when asked what to make of Warren accepting money from a political action committee, while a progressive strategist seemed utterly perplexed by the whole thing. “It honestly takes some effort and creativity to start with a candidate like Elizabeth Warren, who rose to prominence taking on the financial industry and Wall Street, and end up with a muddled message on money in politics. How is that even possible?” the strategist said.
Meanwhile, a high-profile member of congress who endorsed a separate presidential candidate, who has also since dropped out, didn’t hold back.
“Unfortunately the rules change constantly to suit certain people,” the Democratic representative wrote in a text.
During a CNN town hall Thursday night, Warren defended herself as she was questioned about the issue.
“What I’m saying is, c’mon Democrats, all of us, should disavow super PACs,” Warren said. “This is also about the billionaire in the race, or the billionaires in the race, and that is they have the equivalent of a super PAC. It’s known as their sock drawer.”
Warren’s move comes at a politically dire time for the senator. After a third place finish in Iowa, coming in fourth in New Hampshire was a significant blow for a campaign that was regarded as having one of those strongest staff operations in the first in the nation primary state. The perception of a neighboring advantage did little to help her as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) captured the state once more, and two Midwestern candidates, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), finished well ahead of her.
But unlike in the New Hampshire debate, where Warren largely fell flat leaving Klobuchar to ascend in her place, she was more aggressive than usual during Wednesday night’s debate in Las Vegas. During the ninth event of the cycle, which drew nearly 20 million views, she found a helpful foil in one of her primary targets: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“I thought Elizabeth Warren was on fire last night,” former Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, who is remaining neutral in the primary, told The Daily Beast. “I guess somebody finally told her she had to do something rather than try to get along.”
Warren’s supporters came away hoping her debate night evisceration of the New York billionaire showed voters she’s primed to take on the one in the White House.
Her campaign raised more than $2.8 million alone on debate day, according to the senator’s team, and has already brought in “more than $17 million” this month—a much-needed influx of cash as she tries to regain her footing in the race.
“Given the fact that if she's the nominee (she’ll) be running against a billionaire in the general election, I think she showed clearly she's not afraid to take the fight to him, whether it was Bloomberg or Trump,” said Zach Wahls, a Warren supporter and state senator from Iowa.
A top adviser to a third former presidential contender, whose bid was also suspended over monetary concerns, echoed those thoughts. “She’s fighting for her life and there’s a guy in the race spending $1 billion, so it’s not crazy at all,” the adviser said.
Candidates need to find a way to compete as Bloomberg throws hundreds of millions into the race, agreed Kathy Sullivan, a New Hampshire Democratic National Committee member and Warren supporter.
“What she's basically saying is, if everyone else is going to have super PACs and they're not rejecting them, then that would be like basically asking her to disarm when nobody else is willing to do that, which makes no sense,” Sullivan said.
Warren’s position has shifted so swiftly, even her campaign has struggled to keep up. As Persist PAC, the newly minted political action committee, gained attention, the ethos advertised on Warren’s campaign website still read that the senator “rejects the help of Super PACs and would disavow any Super PAC formed to support her in the Democratic primary.”
Asked for a comment about the super PAC on Thursday, a spokesperson sent a statement after 1 p.m. saying “Senator Warren’s position hasn’t changed. Since day one of this campaign, she has made clear that she thinks all of the candidates should lock arms together and say we don’t want super pacs and billionaires to be deciding our Democratic nominee.”
Less than an hour later, Warren had changed her mind.
Some Democratic strategists said it was a puzzling move from a contender riding a wave of positive press following her strong performance on Wednesday night.
By late Thursday afternoon, Warren’s chief rival had already started throwing less-than-subtle shade.
“You can't change a corrupt system by taking its money,” Sanders tweeted. “I am proud to be the only non-billionaire in this race without a super PAC spending millions of dollars to support me.”
After sparring with Sanders in January over whether the Vermont independent had told Warren during a 2018 meeting that a woman couldn’t beat Trump this cycle (something Sanders has denied), Warren has focused less clear fire on the now frontrunner.
And because there were plenty of attacks on Bloomberg Wednesday night, Harris’ former press secretary Ian Sams said it’s Sanders who has an advantage. “I think that (Warren's) challenge in this contest, which is true of every other candidate in this contest, is that very little is being done to dislodge Bernie's position as a frontrunner,” Sams said.
Still, Sanders has not escaped scrutiny. Concerns over Sanders’ medical records, which the senator’s campaign has vigorously defended him over, has not gone unnoticed by Warren.
Asked by a reporter about the medical records Warren said “he had made a promise to release all his medical records and I thought that was what he was going to do.” Pressed further if she felt like he had already done that, she pushed back. “He just hasn’t. I don’t think that’s a question of opinion,” Warren said. “Those aren’t medical records.”
Warren’s willingness to resume her challenging of Sanders may represent a broader shift in her overall campaign messaging. The senator had been test-running a new “unity” candidate approach in recent weeks, promising she is the best suited to unite the fractured Democratic Party. That approach has faded considerably as she heightens her attacks not only on the newest billionaire in the contest, but on her closest progressive ally.
“There are two Elizabeth Warrens,” said the strategist who admires both Sanders and Warren. “There’s the one who progressives love. And there’s the one manufactured and created by consultants.”
Sam Stein contributed to this story.