LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Senator Elizabeth Warren was in full campaign mode Sunday, thrusting her fists in the air and delivering folksy aphorisms with a slight twang as she relentlessly attacked Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell.
“I’m a little surprised to be here, partly because I’m a little surprised to be in the United States Senate,” Warren said, standing next to McConnell’s Democratic opponent, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes. “I am the daughter of a janitor and I ended up in the United States Senate. America is truly a great place.”
The former Harvard law professor was on a two-day political swing through Kentucky. Her latest travels, which will include a trip to West Virginia in two weeks, represent a test of whether her brand of liberal populism, which has captivated the national left, can also appeal in the South and help Democrats defend their hold on the Senate majority.
The results of this experiment could have far-reaching consequences, not only for her own political fortunes but for the party’s efforts to reconnect with Southern, white, working-class voters.
“She is against the corporate monoliths that the average blue-collar Southern [finds] anathema” said Dick Harpootlian, who recently stepped down as the Democratic Party chairman in South Carolina. “She is someone who represents that anti-establishment, economic populism without being extreme. There is a segment, especially in the South, that that appeals to.”
As Democrats head into an uphill midterm campaign season, Warren — one of the party’s top surrogates and fund-raisers — is being welcomed in places where most Democrats, chief among them President Obama, are not.
Jonathan Hurst, campaign manager for Grimes, said inviting Warren to visit was “a no-brainer.” She is, he said, “one of the strongest advocates in our party” on pocketbook issues.”
Warren has said she has no intention of running for president in 2016, which she reiterated in an interview (“I am not running for president. Do you want to put an exclamation point at the end of that?”). But these events are offering her a chance to test the waters on behalf of her party, in states that have been unfriendly to national Democrats in recent decades.
Warren’s ardent supporters are still hoping that she will run, even in light of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presumed candidacy.
In feisty speeches during her weekend trip to Kentucky, Warren emphasized her modest upbringing in Oklahoma, her first marriage as a 19-year-old, and her long-standing focus on economic issues.
“I don’t think Harvard professors would normally play so well with these electorates,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky. “But she’s got a comforting appearance that’s quite at odds with the sort of striking red blazers and West Coast slickness of someone like Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama, with his Chicago urbane demeanor. She comes across maybe a bit like a grandmother.”
In two weeks, Warren will campaign in West Virginia with Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who is facing an uphill battle in keeping a Democratic seat from switching when Senator Jay Rockefeller retires. She is also planning to campaign in Michigan, a state rocked by financial problems. She’ll be aiding Representative Gary Peters, who is trying to keep a Senate seat in Democratic hands when Carl Levin retires.
She has also sent out fund-raising appeals for candidates in Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas. All told she has raised or donated $2.3 million for 28 candidates, according to a tally by her political operation.
“It’s about whose side the candidate is on,” Warren said in an interview, when asked which candidates she is planning to campaign for. “Do they want to go to Washington so they can help the millionaires and billionaires, or do they want to give everybody a fighting chance?”
Kentucky has one of the most closely watched US Senate races in the country. It is a rare place where Democrats could have a chance at unseating not only a Republican incumbent, but the Senate’s top Republican — McConnell, who Warren repeatedly criticized during her weekend swing through the state.
A survey released last week by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling, which had Grimes leading 48 percent-to-46 percent, illustrated why Warren could be an asset in Kentucky. Eighty percent said they were more likely to vote for “a candidate who wants to close loopholes to make sure millionaires do not pay a lower tax rate than the middle class.”
Asked in an interview why she is being invited to states that are not usually friendly territory for national Democrats, she called it “a hard question for me.” “But I will say this. I’m clear about what I stand for . . . Nobody has to guess twice whose side I’m on.”
Warren said she has been in contact with Grimes for nearly a year and was eager to help her in her attempt to unseat McConnell — in part, she said, to achieve more gender equity in Washington.
“Would I like to see more women in the United States Senate? Yes. And you can put that in capitals,” Warren said.
But there may be another impetus for Warren’s trip to Kentucky: McConnell helped block her bill making it easier for students to refinance college loans. That legislation was the theme of a rally Sunday morning.
There is political risk in having Warren campaign in southern states where coal production is a vital part of the economy – putting her policies out of step with the candidates she is backing. Both Tennant and Grimes have opposed Obama’s plans to limit carbon emissions, something Warren supports.
Republicans, publicly giddy over a Massachusetts liberal coming to campaign in Kentucky, have seized upon the division.
“She’s decided to bring anticoal Massachusetts liberal Elizabeth Warren to Kentucky to campaign with her,” read one of the many e-mails sent out by the Kentucky Republican Party over the past few weeks. “Yes, you read that correctly . . .”
American Crossroads, a GOP superPAC, released a video Thursday calling Warren a “war on coal enthusiast” and “the queen of class warfare.” A handful of Republicans stood outside her rally Sunday with signs that noted Warren’s salary at Harvard: “Warren took $429,981 from students.”
“From the McConnell side, they think it’s great,” said Trey Grayson, a Republican who recently left the Harvard Institute of Politics and returned to his native Kentucky.
Still, her appeal is clear.
“These are the kinds of things that presidential candidates do in the lead-up to running one day,” Grayson said. “How often does a senator in year two in office get invited to do fund-raising events 900 miles away, with no tie to the area at all? It reinforces that she’s a national star.”
On Saturday night, Warren headlined a fund-raiser in northern Kentucky at the home of Nathan Smith, a businessman who has also held fund-raisers for Clinton.
Under a setting sun, with Katy Perry’s “Roar” echoing repeatedly from the speakers, donors streamed into a yard overlooking a country club golf course. Some carried Warren’s book, “A Fighting Chance,’’ others wore T-shirts bearing her name. A young girl donned a pink shirt that read, “Elect women.”
As guests sipped from beer cans and wine from plastic cups, about 200 people helped raise more than $200,000.
“She’s a populist,” Smith said. “And I think a populist politician from Massachusetts is very, very exciting to have.”