Ahead of the 2016 presidential primary, New Hampshire was abuzz about a draft effort to recruit US Senator Elizabeth Warren into the race — replete with on-the-ground staff, a Manchester office, and a “Run Warren Run” petition with hundreds of signatures.
But ahead of 2020, many Democratic activists in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state are expressing skepticism about the Cambridge Democrat’s candidacy and outreach in the state. In the days following Warren’s announcement that she had formed a presidential exploratory committee, many top Democratic activists in New Hampshire said they had concerns about her nascent campaign in more than a dozen interviews with the Globe.
Some in the progressive wing said they are still firmly with Bernie Sanders, the US senator from neighboring Vermont, who won the New Hampshire primary by more than 22 points last time. Others said they are more excited by some of the newer faces contemplating bids, such as former US representative Beto O’Rouke of Texas or US Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
“The only person so far who has generated buzz is Beto,” said Judy Reardon, a Democratic operative who helped guide John Kerry’s 2004 campaign in New Hampshire. “But I don’t think that this cycle people are looking for which candidate excites them the most, but who can beat Trump.”
What’s more, past Massachusetts presidential contenders — such as Kerry, Michael Dukakis, and Mitt Romney — spent years visiting New Hampshire, developing relationships, and cultivating chits with key local politicians in the state. Local activists described Warren’s outreach to the state as still in the initial stages, aside from sending a few staffers to the state Democratic party in the closing months of the midterm elections.
On Wednesday, before an appearance at the Massachusetts State House, Warren had her first phone conversation with Rockingham County Democratic chairman Larry Drake. A key point of contact for presidential contenders, Drake has already hosted a number of Warren’s potential 2020 rivals in the past year for meet-and-greet events.
During their 15-minute conversation, Drake said he encouraged her to visit New Hampshire soon and then frequently thereafter if she wants to win the primary slated for February 2020.
Warren hasn’t been to the state in more than two years. She is scheduled to make her first trip to Iowa this weekend, and she announced Wednesday that she had brought on four operatives in that state to her exploratory committee.
Warren declined to say Wednesday if she had immediate plans to visit New Hampshire.
“I sure hope to,” she told reporters on Beacon Hill. “I hope to be able to get out and talk to people everywhere.”
Polling before the state’s primary has so far been minimal. A poll last May showed Warren as the front-runner of the budding Democratic field in the 2020 New Hampshire primary. In August, another poll showed her trailing Sanders and Joe Biden, the former vice president, in third place.
“I personally think she is a strong progressive who cares about the issues we need to address,” said newly elected state Representative Manny Espitia, of Nashua, whom Warren first called last month. “The reaction among my friends is mixed, but everyone expects she will be a big factor in New Hampshire.”
One potential scenario is that Warren will battle Sanders for the progressive wing in New Hampshire. But Democrats are looking at their most unpredictable presidential field in a lifetime, with as many as two dozen potential 2020 candidates in the race.
John and Mary Rauh of New Castle, a progressive power couple in New Hampshire, backed Sanders in 2016 and said they are undecided about whom they will support in 2020. But, they cautioned, it won’t be Warren.
“I respect her and read her book and thought it was so self-centered,” said Mary Rauh, one of four statewide cochairs for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign in the state.
“I do not think she will get much traction here in New Hampshire,” said John Rauh, a former US Senate candidate. “I agree with almost all of her policies. She is just not relating well to people other than those who just deeply agree with her.”
The crowded field — and Sanders, especially — could be the biggest hurdles for Warren in New Hampshire, according to a Saint Anselm College political science professor, Christopher Galdieri.
“She needs to have a plan on what to do with Sanders, who plays in both the geographical and progressives lanes she hopes to have in the New Hampshire primary,” Galdieri said. “Sanders already has a campaign organization and continues to visit, and she has to build it from scratch.”
Sanders has visited the state at least a half-dozen times, and members of his core New Hampshire steering committee — approximately 5o people — are regularly in contact with each other and the senator.
“I’d say 98 percent of my Sanders friends are decidedly not supportive of Warren,” said Eileen Ehlers, of Hooksett, a progressive activist and former state representative who backed Sanders last time and hopes he runs again in 2020. “One frequent comment is that although her policy stances are close to Bernie’s, she did not endorse him and took a politically calculated safe route to back [Hillary] Clinton. People have not forgotten nor forgiven that.”
Reardon, the former Kerry operative, said Warren is among the potential candidates her friends discuss, but believes that more than dealing with Sanders, Warren will have to explain how she can defeat Trump.
“Beating Trump is the number one criteria I hear from a lot of people,” Reardon said.
Peggy Gilmour, a former state senator from Hollis, didn’t hold back with her concerns about Warren’s electability.
“She can’t win. But I expect there will be many other options,” said Gilmour, who backed Clinton in the 2016 primary.