A months-long truce forged between the left’s leading presidential candidates is fraying after a new report that Bernie Sanders told Elizabeth Warren that he did not believe a woman could beat Donald Trump in 2020.
During a private dinner in Washington at the end of 2018, Warren and Sanders agreed that they would avoid attacking one another in the ensuing battle for the party’s presidential nomination so as not to further divide the progressive movement.
At the meeting, Warren laid out her rationale for running: she could make a strong economic argument and would energize female voters. In response, according to a report by CNN on Monday, Sanders said he doubted a woman could be elected president.
In a statement, Sanders said it would be “ludicrous to believe” that he would have made such a comment and accused members of Warren’s staff, who weren’t present for the one-on-one conversation, of “lying about what happened”.
“What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” he said.
“Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3m votes in 2016,” he added, referring to Clinton’s haul of the popular vote in contrast to the electoral college result.
The Warren campaign did not respond to a request for comment on Monday afternoon.
The CNN story is based on the accounts of four people, including “two people Warren spoke with directly soon after the encounter, and two people familiar with the meeting”.
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, called on Warren to address the matter publicly.
“I know what she would say: that it is not true, that it is a lie,” Shakir told CNN.
The escalation comes at a pivotal moment ahead of the Iowa caucuses and just before Tuesday’s debate between the Democratic rivals, in Des Moines, where the candidates will almost certainly be asked to clarify their different interpretations of the meeting.
While tensions have been building for months between the campaigns and their supporters, the candidates had so far refused to go after each other directly. But in the final weeks before voting begins, Sanders has surged ahead in the early states as Warren has declined.
Now an emboldened Sanders is amplifying his attacks on his rivals, aggressively targeting Joe Biden for his past positions on the Iraq war and trade. Though different in style and substance, Sanders and Biden are vying for an overlapping base of voters in Iowa.
But Sanders has also started to sharpen his contrasts with Warren, whose voters he would need to attract to win the Democratic nomination.
Over the weekend, Politico reported that Sanders’ campaign was instructing volunteers to tell voters wavering between the two progressive candidates that Warren’s popularity was limited to “highly educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that she was “bringing no new bases into the Democratic party”.
Responding to the leaked script, Warren told reporters that she was “disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me”. In a fundraising email, her campaign asked supporters to respond if the “Bernie campaign’s description rang false to you, too”.
For his part, Sanders insisted he had “never said a negative word” about Warren, who he called a friend. He added both campaigns have hundreds of employees, who “sometimes say things that they shouldn’t.”
Sanders has long been skeptical of the Democratic party’s emphasis on “identity politics” but the issue has been particularly fraught in a field shaped by younger and more diverse candidates.
In the December debate, Sanders was asked to respond to Barack Obama’s comments that the world would be a better place if there were more female heads of state and that many problems are caused by “old men not getting out of the way”.
Sanders quipped that he was not only old but “white, too”. Then he joked that it might be “self-serving” but he disagreed with the former president.
“The issue is where power resides in America,” he said. “And it’s not white or black or male or female. We are living in a nation increasingly becoming an oligarchy. We have a handful of billionaires who spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying elections and politicians.”
What started as the most racially diverse and female primary field in history has shifted dramatically. On Tuesday, no candidates of color will be on the debate stage. All of the leading candidates are white, and only one is a woman.
The field’s dissipating diversity was underscored on Monday by the departure of Cory Booker, who is African American, just over a week after Julián Castro, the only Latino presidential candidate, ended his campaign.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, the only other female candidate who will be on the debate stage Tuesday night, has been increasingly vocal about the role of sexism and double standards in presidential politics.
Last month, she wondered aloud on the debate stage whether a female candidate with as little experience as Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old former mayor of South Bend, would have qualified.