Warren took a question about whether Sanders, in fact, said what she says he did and pivoted to an electability argument. She said she didn’t want to “fight with Bernie” but then proceeded to offer a pretty anti-Bernie version of whom Democrats need to nominate.
“Here’s what I know: The real danger that we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency,” she said. “We need a candidate who will excite all parts of the Democratic Party, bring everyone in and give everyone a Democrat to believe in. That’s my plan, and that is why I’m going to win.”
To bolster her argument, she offered two statistics:
- “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women.”
- “And the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years is me.”
The first one is a reference to her and Amy Klobuchar, who has indeed won three Senate races in Minnesota relatively comfortably, as well as two terms as Hennepin County attorney. Klobuchar’s electoral record is impressive, even if you consider she came out of a very blue county and then won a blue-leaning but occasionally competitive state. She has won each of her Senate races by more than 20 points, in fact. Pretty much the only reason she hasn’t beaten a Republican incumbent is because she hasn’t faced one; she joined the Senate in 2007 after winning an open-seat race.
Which starts to point toward the selectivity of Warren’s second stat. Yes, Warren is the only one who has beaten a Republican incumbent since 1980. But in that time, only one other candidate on the debate stage has even faced a Republican incumbent.
That one is Pete Buttigieg, who waged a characteristically audacious campaign against then-Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock in 2010. Buttigieg lost badly, yes, but it was red Indiana in a very good Republican year, and he was also 28 years old. Klobuchar didn’t have to beat a Republican to win her offices, Tom Steyer has never run for office, and Joe Biden became a senator 38 years ago and was the vice presidential nominee in an open year.
Biden and Sanders have beaten Republican incumbents, but their victories came in 1972 and 1990, respectively. Since then, they haven’t really had a chance to run against a Republican incumbent. Sanders arguably could have challenged then-Republican Jim Jeffords in Vermont rather than wait for him to retire from the Senate in 2007, sure, and maybe Biden could have sought the Democratic nomination to run against a Republican president. But it’s hard to say they aren’t good candidates because they didn’t win races they didn’t run.
Similarly, there’s the question of just how impressive Warren’s electoral history is. She won her first race in a very big contest. It was the hotly contested and very expensive 2012 Senate race in Massachusetts in which she was pitted against a popular incumbent GOP senator in Scott Brown. And she won by eight points. But it was also a presidential election year in a very blue state. Warren won despite exit polls showing her slightly less popular than Brown. That was more a factor of Brown being really popular (he had a 60 percent favorable rating among voters) than Warren necessarily being a bad candidate, but it does suggest she had help in getting across the line.
And the top of the ticket is increasingly determinative these days — at least in Senate races. In 2016, no state picked a president of one party and a senator of another — the culmination of a long-running trend. And when states have split their tickets, as a handful did in 2012, they’ve rarely been as politically tilted as Massachusetts.
Fast-forward to Warren’s 2018 reelection bid, and it was pretty par for the course. She took 60 percent of the vote against the unheralded GOP nominee, state Rep. Geoff Diehl, matching the state’s usual performance in presidential elections. (The Democratic presidential nominee in Massachusetts has taken between 60 and 62 percent in every election since 1996 there.) It’s certainly not the stuff of Klobuchar, who has routinely beaten handily the numbers of Democratic presidential candidates in her state.
So the case Warren is making is perhaps more nuanced than she would like it to be, but this is politics. The more interesting thing here may be that she’s making it at all. For much of the campaign, she has been fighting the narrative that she might be too extreme or that another Massachusetts Democrat just isn’t a great idea for Democrats who have lost with John Kerry and Michael Dukakis in recent decades. Not to mention the whole Harvard professor thing. Even if you ignore the debate about female candidates, these other things have loomed over her campaign.
With her chances slipping a bit, she seems to see this as a way to make the case that she’s more electable than Sanders and perhaps pick off some of his voters. It’s up to those voters to decide how compelling that is.
Perhaps they will be more impressed that, when Sanders knocked off Rep. Peter Smith (R-Vt.) in 1990, he became just the second non-Republican elected to Congress from Vermont since 1881.