DES MOINES — Senator Elizabeth Warren on Monday said that Senator Bernie Sanders, a fellow progressive and a longtime liberal ally, told her during a private meeting in 2018 that he believed a woman could not win the presidency.
“Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate,” Warren said in a statement. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”
The allegations about Sanders’ comments during the meeting, which were first reported by CNN on Monday morning, ruptured the already-strained detente between the two Democrats and brought questions about sexism and politics to the fore a day ahead of the final presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses.
Sanders described the report as “ludicrous” earlier Monday and his aides called it a “lie,” setting the stage for a clash when the two senators take the stage with four other candidates here on Tuesday night.
In his statement to CNN, Sanders said that the issue of sexism and politics had come up when the two met privately to discuss their deliberations about running for president in a meeting in Warren’s apartment in Washington in late 2018.
“What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” Sanders told CNN in a statement. “Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”
The day’s developments amounted to a bizarre twist at a crucial moment in the campaign, and left progressives deeply worried the fight between Warren and Sanders would hurt them both in a tight presidential primary.
Warren had no public events on Monday, and her campaign hunkered down for most of the day, ignoring calls and e-mails from reporters as the story rocketed around the Internet. Reached by phone in the early evening, her campaign manager, Roger Lau, did not offer a comment.
But after the CNN report, Sanders’ aides moved quickly to tamp the story down.
“I don’t believe Elizabeth Warren has commented on it or said it directly, it is because it is a lie,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, told reporters Monday, before Warren’s statement. “Everyone’s coming at us right now. Come at us, that’s fine. But don’t spread lies about Bernie Sanders.”
Sanders supporters shared two videos on social media of him from the late 1980s supporting the idea of a woman president. “One of the very important things that I hope that all the girls in this class understand is that you just as much as the boys have a right to become president,” he told an elementary school class in 1987. A year later on C-SPAN, Sanders said, “In my view a woman could be elected president of the United States.”
Finally, Warren released an evening statement confirming the report, but emphasizing she wanted to move on to other topics.
“I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry,” Warren said in her statement. “I’m in this race to talk about what’s broken in this country and how to fix it — and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. I know Bernie is in the race for the same reason.”
The two candidates’ defacto non-aggression pact snapped Sunday after Politico reported Sanders’ volunteers were given a script directing them to persuade Warren supporters to abandon her by claiming she attracted only “affluent” voters. Warren shot back, telling reporters after a town hall in Iowa she was “disappointed” in Sanders for telling volunteers to “trash” her.
Then Warren aimed a dig of her own back at Sanders, suggesting he does not work hard enough to appeal to a broad swath of Democrats. “We cannot nominate someone who takes big chunks of the Democratic coalition for granted,” she said. “We need someone who would bring our party together.”
Speaking to reporters in Iowa City, Sanders did not dispute the authenticity of the script but downplayed its significance and suggested he had nothing to do with it.
“No one is gonna trash Elizabeth Warren,” Sanders said. “We have hundreds of employees. Elizabeth Warren has hundreds of employees. People sometimes say things that they shouldn’t.”
The heightened tensions — after nearly a year of avoiding attacks on each other — come after a Des Moines Register poll showed Sanders leading the Iowa caucuses, with Warren close behind him. Warren’s Iowa organization is rated by local experts as the strongest, but the poll showed Sanders’ supporters as the most committed to him compared to his rivals’ backers. The squabble between the two progressives could boost former vice president Joe Biden or former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who are also polling in the top four in the crucial state.
“Their non-aggression pact has lasted a very long time, but he broke it,” said Boston-based Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh. “It’s a risk because it could be mutually assured destruction.”
But Marsh added that the dust-up could hurt Sanders among female voters, who have helped power Democratic victories post-Trump. “Women are driving politics, and anyone who doesn’t understand that is going to get run over by them,” she said.
Despite those victories by women candidates in the 2018 midterms, some Democratic voters have fretted over whether a female candidate would be at a disadvantage against President Trump — a dynamic that has created a double standard in the Democratic primary and forced women candidates to work harder to prove they are “electable.”
Speaking earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden noted the role of sexism in the 2016 campaign, when Trump beat Hillary Clinton, and said “That’s not going to happen with me,” according to the New York Times. An aide said he was not trying to suggest he was more electable than a woman.
The leaders of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backs Warren, urged the two progressives to deescalate with each other.
“We also believe that a back-and-forth about this private meeting is counter-productive for progressives,” the group’s cofounders said in a statement. “In this pivotal moment of the campaign, progressives must work together to defeat Donald Trump and prevent a less-electable establishment candidate like Joe Biden from getting the nomination.”
And Charles Chamberlain, chairman of the liberal group Democracy for America, warned that a failure of the two to work together “can cost us the election.”
“This fire was started,” Chamberlain said, but “it can be put out by leadership by example from the top.”