On February 7, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was reading a letter critical of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), then the nominee for attorney general, when the Senate's top Republican forced her to stop. Invoking an obscure Senate rule against disparaging colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had Warren ejected from the Senate chamber. Minutes later, she appeared on MSNBC and #letlizspeak began trending on Twitter. Warren then read the full letter—which had been written by Coretta Scott King in 1986—on Facebook Live. By the next morning, the Facebook video had been viewed more than 5 million times.
McConnell, known as one of the savviest political operators in Washington, appeared to have made an uncharacteristic mistake. Rather than silence Warren's message, he made it go viral. McConnell defended his decision that night by stating that he had warned Warren but "nevertheless, she persisted"—a phrase Warren's supporters have now emblazoned on apparel, mugs, and their bodies as tattoos.
At a time of division within their party, Republicans believe the best strategy is to unite against a common foe. Without Barack Obama in the White House, they need someone else to run against in 2018. Warren, a household name and an unapologetic liberal, is an easy choice. Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist in Washington, DC, says going after Warren is part of the Republican playbook for 2020, as well. "Always define your opponent before your opponent can define you," he says. And taking on Warren now, O'Connell suggests, will hurt her chances if she becomes her party's presidential nominee in 2020.
That's exactly what Democrats are counting on—that Warren's persona and message will appeal beyond the party's progressive base and coastal and urban strongholds. But O'Connell says he isn't worried about Warren's populist message undercutting Republicans. Warren's support for environmental regulations, he believes, provides a wedge issue Republicans can use to hold onto working-class white voters who supported Trump in November. "What you're seeing here is a potential collision between environmentalists, which Warren loves, and big labor," he says.