Democrats are hoping Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s populist pitch can help them hold onto blue-collar voters in red states, where they’ll need them most this fall.
With Senate control at stake, the proudly liberal Massachusetts senator has been stumping for Democratic candidates recently in West Virginia and Kentucky, far from the deep-blue states where her progressive policies would typically find a receptive audience.
“If you don’t have an enthusiasm among your base in any state, you can’t win,” said strategist David Jones, a former adviser to the Democratic National Committee. “And that’s what she does when you bring her to a purple or red state.”
While Warren has repeatedly insisted she has no plans to make a play for the White House, her campaign stops this election cycle preview what a Warren presidential campaign — whether in 2016 or beyond — might look like: fiery and energetic, infused with Warren’s unique brand of anti-Wall Street, populist themes.
The freshman senator’s appeal, Democrats say, is all about contrast. The Democratic Party has framed this cycle in terms of contrasts: between Republicans, who are for big business and Wall Street, and Democrats, who are fighting for the middle class.
And Warren is perhaps the best messenger out there to make that appeal to voters, both because of her compelling personal narrative and her short but active tenure in the Senate.
The daughter of working-class parents, Warren waitressed to help make ends meet at home, when her dad suffered a heart attack. She was a working mom before she became a senator. Democrats say that story contrasts well with some of the Republicans she’s campaigned against, like Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who comes from a West Virginia political dynasty, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who’s been in Congress for more than three decades.
In West Virginia, where President Obama receives his second-lowest popularity rating in the nation, the turnout and enthusiasm for Warren were so big that Democrat Natalie Tennant’s campaign had to find a new venue to fit the 400-plus people who showed up for a midday event, despite a storm blowing outside.
“West Virginia is much more Elizabeth Warren than Paul Ryan,” said one Tennant aide, a reference to the former vice presidential nominee’s stop in the state to campaign for Capito, who is Tennant’s GOP opponent and the front-runner in the race, on Monday.
“West Virginia is a working-class state. Her background, and the way she grew up, could be the story of a lot of folks in West Virginia.”
That blue-collar appeal is also why progressives are still clamoring for her to run for president. Warren is a credible messenger on populist economic issues in ways other Democratic hopefuls, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, aren’t.
And as a leader on populist policy issues in the Senate, with a short enough tenure to be relatively untainted by congressional gridlock, she provides a stark policy contrast to Republicans she’s stumped against on the trail.
In West Virginia on Monday, the contrast was on financial issues. Warren said Capito, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee’s subcommittee on financial institutions, has “been there” when Wall Street “needs her.”
“She’s out there for Wall Street. She’s leading the charge. ... We need some more people who are willing to work on the side of America’s families,” Warren said.
In Kentucky, her message was on education funding and financing. Warren and Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes touted Warren’s student loan reform bill, which failed in the Senate last month due to GOP opposition led by McConnell.
Thus far this cycle, Warren’s stumped for Sen. Al Franken (Minn.) and attended fundraisers for Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jeff Merkley (Ore.), and Patty Murray (Wash.). She heads to Michigan this week for a fundraiser for Rep. Gary Peters, running for the open Senate seat there, and has lent her name to fundraising emails for Democratic Senate candidates in Iowa, South Dakota, New Hampshire, Arkansas and Georgia.
Warren’s strong fundraising abilities — she raised more than $200,000 for Grimes in Kentucky, and $250,000 for Merkley in Oregon — are part of why she’s so valuable for Senate Democrats, and why she could be a strong candidate if she runs for higher office, Jones said.
“Financial resources are essential to the success of all these campaigns, we all know that. So people are constantly looking for a new draw, a new way to bring in new donors, and right now, new donors are coming in because of her,” he said. “She’s a star. People react to her because she’s got a message.”
But her appearances and fundraising pleas for Democrats in red states come with risks. Chris Kofinis, Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) former chief of staff, warned her visit could be bad optics for red-state Democrats.
“Unless you’re Bill Clinton, surrogates — especially elected ones — in red states like West Virginia and Kentucky are a double-edged sword, where they will hurt you as much they help,” he said. “And worst case, they’ll alienate the very independent and swing voters you need to win.”
“Sure you’ll get coverage, fundraise, and even a great crowd. But then you have to deal with the electoral back draft that you just brought in a D.C. insider who is an outsider to your state to win over your state’s voters. How does that turn out well?”
Indeed, the GOP group American Bridge released identical videos tying Warren to Grimes and Tennant when she stumped for both of them, calling Warren the “queen of class warfare” and warning: “Liberals unite. Stop them this November.”
Capito spokeswoman Amy Graham said Warren’s visit to the state for Tennant showed how “out of touch” Tennant was.
“[Tennant] is a supporter of President Obama, a supporter of Elizabeth Warren and she’s going to have a hard time convincing West Virginia voters she’s not associated with their extremely harmful and deeply unpopular policies,” Graham said in a statement.