Trump shouldn't underestimate Elizabeth Warren as a 2020 opponent (and it's not why you think)

As President Trump sharpens his attacks on potential 2020 Democratic challengers, he has elevated Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to the top of the heap with his frequent barbs.

Axios reported recently that Trump believes Warren will emerge as the Democratic presidential nominee two years from now – and his advisers are telling him that would be a good thing.

Having worked on the opposing campaign when Warren was elected to the Senate in 2012, I’ve heard those same arguments underestimating her before. The arguments were wrong then. They could be off-base now as well.

The case against Warren winning a presidential election goes something like this: She is too extreme to win a general election match-up against President Trump. She is too far-left to win voters in the Midwest states who paved Trump’s road to the White House. Her over-the-top rhetoric will rub people the wrong way.

But none of those arguments stopped Warren from being elected to the Senate six years ago.

Granted, a Senate race in heavily Democratic Massachusetts during a presidential year is very different than a presidential race. Warren also ran way behind President Obama in Massachusetts in 2016. He carried the state by 24 points, while her margin of victory was a more modest eight points.

Already, multiple red polling flags are waving in Warren’s face. A Suffolk University-Boston Globe survey showed that 58 percent of Massachusetts voters don’t want her to run for president. Both former Sen. and Secretary of State John Kerry and former Gov. Deval Patrick garner more support than Warren for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Warren’s biggest vulnerabilities lie on her left flank. Like Hillary Clinton, Warren’s populist rhetoric is undermined by her more capitalist past.

The same poll shows Massachusetts voters hold Republican Gov. Charlie Baker in higher regard than Warren, despite the Bay State’s deep blue tint. Defying political gravity, Baker’s favorability stands at 72 approve/18 disapprove, while Warren has a more modest 57 approve/35 disapproval split.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Warren’s biggest vulnerabilities lie on her left flank. Like Hillary Clinton, Warren’s populist rhetoric is undermined by her more capitalist past. Now that she’s fired the presidential gun, she will face presidential level vetting, from the media and opposition researchers, both Democratic and Republican.

Questions about Warren’s work as a highly compensated attorney for large corporations will arise again. In 2012, Warren resisted calls to release a full list of her corporate clients, and will likely use President Trump and his taxes to avoid this issue in 2020. But a smart Democratic challenger would push her into an uncomfortable place, especially with the topic of taxes center stage.

There is the murky issue of Warren personally profiting from flipping homes – some of them foreclosed – in her native Oklahoma. It’s an episode that has never fully been fleshed out, and it’s a damaging storyline in a Democratic Party enamored with socialism.

Of course, the lingering issue of Warren using minority status to advance her professional career at Harvard University takes on a different light when it comes from the left. Imagine on a primary debate stage in New Hampshire and Warren is getting cross-examined by a skilled prosecutor like Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. Harris asks why Harvard touted Warren as a “woman of color,” and whether the university denied a spot to a more deserving candidate.

Warren still has no answer on why she identified herself as Native American when applying to Ivy League institutions, why she called herself white other times, and why her ethnicity has changed throughout her life. She may consider the matter resolved, but that’s really up to her Democratic challengers – and more importantly, Democratic voters.

In politics, timing is everything. In 2016, Warren spurned liberals begging her to challenge presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, who was viewed with deep suspicion by activists.

Had she taken the presidential plunge in 2016, Warren could have dominated that left lane. Now she will be sharing it with Harris; Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.; Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; and a slew of others chomping at the bit to challenge President Trump.

Warren’s moment might have passed.

So while President Trump and his team relish a general election match-up with Warren, she will have to survive a bruising primary season first.

Like Hillary Clinton, Warren has vulnerabilities on her left flank. Like Clinton, Warren’s path to the nomination runs through a Democratic Party sprinting to the left, making her path more challenging than people are realizing.

Colin Reed is a former campaign manager for Scott Brown and is a Republican strategist and Managing Director at Definers Public Affairs, a Washington-D.C. based communications firm.