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GOP woes spell smooth sailing for Warren

Adam Reilly
GOP woes spell smooth sailing for Warren
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren BANNER FILE PHOTO

As Elizabeth Warren launches a bid for a third term in the U.S. Senate, recent polling might seem, at first glance, to suggest that her reelection is far from guaranteed.

Earlier this year, a survey by the MassINC Polling Group found Massachusetts residents sharply divided on Warren, with 41% viewing her favorably and 36% unfavorably. A similar split was evident on the question of whether Warren should run again: 43% said she should, while 36% said she shouldn’t.

But MassINC pollster Steve Koczela says when it comes to gauging Warren’s current prospects, those results might actually paint an inordinately bleak picture.

“She starts off in a pretty similar place, honestly, to where she was in 2018,” Koczela said, referring to Warren’s last reelection bid. “Her polling, looking back at 2017, wasn’t particularly sparkling, but she went on and cruised to reelection.”

In the 2018 general election, Warren faced former state representative Geoff Diehl — who had triumphed in a three-way Republican primary — and beat him handily, 60% to 36%.

How the commonwealth’s changing GOP factors in

Koczela’s caveat comes with an asterisk of its own: Diehl, who’d been an early supporter of Donald Trump, personified the Massachusetts Republican Party’s recent turn to the right and preference for ideological purity over electability. A few years after losing to Warren, when then-Republican Gov. Charlie Baker was still weighing whether to seek a third term, Diehl announced a gubernatorial bid of his own, seemingly undeterred by his Senate loss or Baker’s high statewide approval ratings. Baker didn’t run again, and Diehl lost the governor’s race to Maura Healey in a landslide.

After a disastrous 2022 election cycle, the Mass. GOP ousted former party chair Jim Lyons and replaced him with Amy Carnevale, who has vowed to rebuild it from the ground up. But Carnevale’s project is just beginning, and the Mass. GOP is still at a nadir in terms of influence and reputation. Against that backdrop, it’s not clear that any electable Republican capable of going toe to toe with Warren — who made a strong run for the presidency in the 2020 cycle — will try to unseat her next year.

“We’ve seen quality Republican moderates run and win the governor’s office in Massachusetts,” said UMass Boston political scientist Erin O’Brien. “But the Massachusetts Republican Party has put out people like Charlie Baker, who was that popular governor, and run people like Geoff Diehl.

“In the abstract, a moderate Republican could do well in Massachusetts,” O’Brien added. “But it’s only in the abstract, because that individual either doesn’t exist or has been forced out of Massachusetts politics.”

In a text message, Carnevale told GBH News that she expects the party will field a credible challenge to Warren 2024, and that “at least two Republicans” are currently considering a run. She declined to identify them.

Highly favorable among Democrats

Warren will also be boosted, in her latest bid, by high popularity among members of her own party — which make up roughly a third of the state’s voters. In MassINC’s poll, which was conducted in late January and early February, 68% of Democrats viewed her favorably and 69% thought she should run again. In March, another poll, conducted by Change Research for Northwind Strategies, found that while almost as many people viewed Warren unfavorably as favorably, 30% viewed her very favorably — more than any other Massachusetts politician polled, including Baker.

Those numbers suggest two things. First, in a hypothetical 2024 general election matchup, Warren would benefit from a loyal core of supporters who would organize for her, give her money and show up at the polls. And second, anyone who might entertain the prospect of a primary challenge against Warren would face a daunting challenge.

The timing of Warren’s announcement is also fortuitous. As bad as the crisis of confidence currently roiling the U.S. banking system is, it’s likely to be a political asset for Warren as she begins campaigning again in earnest.

“That’s … her bread-and-butter sort of issue,” said Shannon Jenkins, a political scientist at UMass Dartmouth. “That’s what she knows inside and out. She’s one of the foremost experts on banking policy in the U.S. government right now.”

By renewing her calls for rigorous regulation of the banking industry, Jenkins added, Warren can bolster her standing with the progressive Democrats who make up her political base while appealing to other voters, as well.

“Not a lot of people are pro-big banks, right?” said Jenkins. “It’s just kind of a gut reaction from voters.”

Where Warren remains vulnerable

Despite all these advantages, though, Warren has some weaknesses that are worth bearing in mind as the 2024 Massachusetts Senate race shapes up.

Koczela notes that, when the MassINC poll was conducted earlier this year, Warren’s standing was relatively weak among younger voters, many of whom hadn’t yet formed an opinion of her. Within the state, she’s also more popular with well-educated voters and voters who live close to Boston.

In an email, Tatishe Nteta, a political scientist at UMass Amherst and the director of the UMass Poll, noted that surveys he’s worked on show a “steady majority” of Massachusetts residents approve of Warren’s performance, and that she’s been a reliable champion on student-loan forgiveness, income inequality and several other progressive causes highlighted in her campaign kickoff video.

But Nteta also said Warren’s performance in the 2020 Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary — in which she finished third, behind Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — suggests she could be vulnerable to a primary challenge from the right.

“Some will say that voters in Massachusetts voted strategically for a candidate that could win in a general election matchup with Trump, but some might view these results as evidence of Warren’s weakness among the moderate wing of the Democratic Party and among independents in the state,” Nteta wrote.

Adam Reilly is a reporter at GBH-TV’s Greater Boston.