Warren wows in first campaign swing but electability questions follow her

The Massachusetts Democrat and likely presidential contender drew big crowds in Iowa, addressed her DNA test and played up her Oklahoma upbringing.
Image: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, speaks during an organizing event in Des Moines
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., spent the weekend in Iowa, including an organizing event in Des Moines on Saturday.Brian Snyder / Reuters

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By Alex Seitz-Wald

DES MOINES, Iowa — Whatever questions Elizabeth Warren faced before becoming the first major Democratic candidate to step toward the 2020 presidential race, a nearly flawless and well-received trip to Iowa this weekend made it clear she intends to win and has a plan to do it.

Around 3,000 people turned out to see the Massachusetts senator at five events across the state over three days, a testament to both her political celebrity and the pent-up eagerness among Iowa Democrats to get the race started against President Donald Trump — even if their crucial first-in-the-nation caucuses are still more than a year away.

Invoking both her time selling Girl Scout cookies and the fight against the "corruption, plain and simple" of what she calls the rigged political system, Warren introduced herself as more personable than Bernie Sanders, her progressive frenemy, and more fiery and populist than other top potential candidates, like former Vice President Joe Biden.

Of course, she didn't have to compete against any of them, since her early campaign launch ensured she'd have the state to herself.

But a pointed question from an audience member about the bungled roll out of her DNA test, along with doubts about whether she can beat Trump, offered reminders that nobody will have an easy path to the Democratic nomination in 2020.

"She'll be recognized as a front-runner right now,” said Heather Matson, who ousted a Republican state lawmaker in November and participated in an event with Warren on Saturday. "But I think anyone who's running for president and wants to spend time in Iowa knows that it's going to be person-by-person contest."

Talking Oklahoma, not Harvard

Warren used her 2018 Senate re-election campaign to hone her stump speech and build the biggest war chest of any potential 2020 hopeful at $12.5 million.

The practice in Massachusetts, which included some three dozen town halls, paid off this weekend in Iowa where she anchored campaign rallies while fighting a cold she said she picked up over the holidays from her grandchildren — the "little Petri dishes."

People lined up before dawn in subfreezing temperatures to make sure they got in to see her in Sioux City on Saturday morning. Many were turned away at the door once the event reached capacity.

And large crowds followed Warren as she made her way east to Storm Lake and then Des Moines, where the line stretched around the block twice in the capital's gentrifying East Village.

"There are 1,000 people here," said Megan Suhr, the Marion County Democratic Party chair. "I stood in line for a Dave Grohl show two weeks ago and there were 1,000 people there."

Warren is probably best-known nationally as a Massachusetts liberal in the vein of Ted Kennedy, a mentor whose Senate seat she now occupies, and as a former Harvard Law professor turned consumer advocate.

But in Iowa, Warren's stump speech skipped that section of her resume almost entirely, focusing instead on her hardscrabble upbringing in Oklahoma, where there was not enough money to send her to college and her mother had to find a minimum-wage job late in life after her father had a heart attack.

"I am probably the most unlikely senator you will find," Warren said in Ankeny.

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass, waves to the crowd during an organizing event in Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 5, 2019.Matthew Putney / AP

She recounted her decision to drop out of school at 19 to get married — "smart," she quipped self-deprecatingly. And she joked that she was proud to have helped convert one of her three older brothers, all of whom joined the military, to the Democratic Party.

"When I first heard her on the stump, it made me feel like exactly where I grew up and the difficulties I grew up with," said J.D. Scholten, a Democrat who attracted national attention for his unsuccessful campaign against conservative Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, last year. "When it comes to Iowans, we don't get fooled very often. And that 'X factor' and that authenticity is really important."

Scholten said he was impressed that Warren chose to begin her campaign in the conservative, rural western reaches of the state, where Democrats often don't bother campaigning. "We're becoming this urban-suburban Whole Foods party and I live in a 'Dollar General' area. A lot of the reasons I'm a Democrat are the reasons she's a Democrat," he said.

Christie Vilsack, the wife of former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and an advocate in the Democratic Party for rural areas, said Warren connected with voters.

"Yes, she's a Harvard professor, but she also is a teacher," Vilsack said. "I think that will be appealing, because in Iowa most women are still teachers. If they're working, that's the job that was available to many of them and is still in many small towns."

Is she 'electable'?

Warren has avoided setting foot in Iowa for years, wary of stoking presidential speculation.

That left her a bit behind potential 2020 rivals like Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Sanders, all of whom visited Iowa last year to stump for Democratic candidates in the midterm elections.

But before this trip, Warren's nascent campaign announced the hiring of several well-respected Iowa operatives, including some who had worked for Sanders in 2016, with whom she is headed for an inevitable clash if he decides to run again.

Warren's national campaign will likely be headquartered in Boston, where her retinue of longtime aides will be joined by new ones, like Joe Rospars, Barack Obama’s 2008 digital guru who founded Blue State Digital, one of the largest online firms working for Democrats.

"We're in the fourth quarter of the staffing primary and she'll end up with one of the best staffs in the field," said Jerry Crawford, an Iowa Democratic powerbroker who has advised several campaigns. "There are probably 20 or 25 top staffers in Iowa who have experience with the caucus process and really understand it and she's just hired about a quarter of them."

But Crawford sounded a note of caution for Warren, too.

"Iowans are going to be very concerned about electability and that's a hurdle she has yet to cross," he said.

Gender and age

Warren's team knows that convincing people she can beat Trump will be one of its chief challenges, in Iowa and beyond — even if no one is really sure what "electability" really looks like in the scrambled politics of the Trump era.

Warren will face particular scrutiny because of her gender, age and left-leaning ideology, along with the fact that Trump has already targeted her, especially over questions about her Native American heritage.

"Why did you undergo the DNA testing and give Donald Trump more fodder to be a bully?" one woman asked Warren in Sioux City.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) greets an overflow crowd outside of the Our Place Community Center before participating in a round-table discussion on Jan. 5, 2019 in Storm Lake, Iowa.Scott Olson / Getty Images

The handling of the DNA test, which showed Warren most likely had distant Native American ancestors, was widely criticized, including by Native American tribes.

Warren gave a similar answer to one she has given before, which is unlikely to settle the question. "My decision was, I'm just going to put it all out there," Warren told the woman. "I can't stop Donald Trump from what he's going to do. I can't stop him from hurling racial insults.”

And many Democrats wonder if nominating another white woman of Hillary Clinton's age (Warren is 69) is the right move for the party.

Nancy Bower, a schoolteacher, said she loves Clinton and Warren, and thinks both would make great presidents — but not necessarily great presidential candidates.

"I just don't think our nation is ready for a woman, and especially for an older woman,” she said. "I want to win."

Warren's campaign seemed to anticipate those kind of questions and tacitly addressed them with an event Saturday featuring women who ran and won campaigns in Iowa last year.

The state has been notoriously difficult for female candidates in the past, and Iowa was one of the last states in the country to send a woman to Congress. But Iowa voters in November elected a record 45 women to the state legislature, and sent two new Democratic women to the U.S. House of Representatives.

"People told me back in 2012 that Massachusetts would not elect a woman to the United States Senate, so we got organized, we fought back and we won," Warren said.