A progressive group hoping to pressure Democrats on trade has found an unwitting weapon: Elizabeth Warren.
A mailer sent to 70,000 households by the left-leaning Working Families Party in Oregon uses the Massachusetts senator’s photograph and text from an op-ed she wrote to slam Ron Wyden, the state’s senior senator. Wyden is a longtime supporter of free trade and a lynchpin for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, debate over which is currently roiling Capitol Hill.
“Will Senator Wyden choose to represent Oregon’s families or Wall Street,” the mailer reads. The reverse side features a photograph of a Warren below a quotation from her article: “Who will benefit from the TPP? American workers? Consumers? Small businesses? Taxpayers? Or the biggest multinational corporations in the world?”
But in the op-ed the mailer cites, Warren wasn’t referring to TPP as a whole but to one specific clause—“the Investor State Dispute Settlement”—which she says would permit foreign companies to challenge U.S. laws and seek redress from U.S. taxpayers without going through the American judicial system.
Even on the Republican side, where internecine fights have been fought with increasing ferocity and regularity, it would be exceptionally rare for a sitting senator to criticize a member of his or her own party, especially in a political context. In the 2012 and 2014 midterm elections, when several moderate Republicans were facing primary challenges from Tea Party-backed challengers, even the most Tea Party-friendly firebrands, such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, took pains to avoid endorsing a challenger to one of their colleagues.
Warren’s office said it was unaware of the mailer and declined further comment.
Wyden has come under increasing pressure from Oregon progressives, environmentalists, and labor unions, all of which are trailing the senator around the state to come out against TPP. A recent poll by the liberal group Democracy for America found that more than 90 percent of its members supported a primary challenge to Wyden if he did not work to kill TPP. MoveOn.org found that 79 percent of its members said the same thing.
“Wyden has a history, going back to NAFTA, of supporting these trade deals that have been bad for Oregon’s working families,” said Karly Edwards, the executive director of the WFP in Oregon. “We think Elizabeth Warren is the perfect example of the kind of senator who has stood up for these issues.”
Wyden has been a leading liberal on a host of issues other than trade, leading the fight against government surveillance and for a free and open Internet. But Wyden opponents say his stance on trade is particularly problematic in Oregon, where more than 60,000 jobs have been lost in the past decade due to liberalized trade deals, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute.
Oregon political insiders, however, say it will take more than agitation by liberal groups to take down Wyden, a four-term senator who remains the most popular politician in the state. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a critic of TPP, has said he will not run for Wyden’s Senate seat, and it does appear as if there is a credible Democrat who can mount a primary challenge. In 2010, back when liberals were hitting Wyden for attempting to engineer a market-based workaround to the Affordable Care Act, the Working Families Party ran a candidate on its own ballot line against him in the general election. Even with a potential spoiler present, Wyden bested his Republican opponent by 18 points.
“Wyden is the kind of politician who could kill your aunt, and on Election Day you go to the polls and think, ‘You know, there was that whole aunt thing, but I think I’m sticking with Ron,’” said one Democratic strategist in Oregon unaffiliated with Wyden. “A lot of this is just professional bitching and moaning. That has its place, but it doesn’t win you a Senate race.”
Wyden has been personally lobbied on the 12-country trade deal by President Obama and other White House officials who are counting on him to bring reluctant Democrats on board with what has been a key legacy item for the Obama administration. Most of the Republican caucus already supports the agreement.
Still, Wyden has been reluctant to signal his own support for the bill as written, pushing to slow the so-called fast track authority so that Congress can amend portions of the deal. Republicans have said that would crimp the administration’s ability to negotiate.
“Senator Wyden is fighting to update our trade policy to create unprecedented transparency, consistent enforcement of the rules and strong congressional oversight throughout the entire trade process,” a Wyden spokesman said in a statement. “The Trans-Pacific Partnership is still being negotiated and Sen. Wyden won’t have a position on any agreement until it is complete. He supports trade that fully reflects the values we hold dear in Oregon and in our country—protecting the environment, human rights, labor and free speech online. All of his work on this issue is driven by the knowledge that well-crafted, effectively enforced trade agreements help create family wage jobs, but that middle-class and working families must be confident that the U.S. is fixing a trade system that has too often failed to work for them in the past.”