Elizabeth Warren thundered away during the rally at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, railing against the influence of billionaires. “The people will decide who the senator from Wisconsin is going to be!” she yelled.
That was in September. The people wouldn’t be voting for 409 more days.
Massachusetts’ senior senator has been on the campaign trail for months, using her brand name among liberals and her fund-raising clout to support Democratic Senate candidates across the country, in a bid for her party to reclaim control of the chamber.
And she’s doing it early. Very early.
So far this year, she has headlined a fund-raiser in New York City for Ohio Senate candidate Ted Strickland. And she has endorsed in four of what’s shaping up to be the nine closest Senate races.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the arm of the party focused on retaking the Senate, has invoked her name 21 times in fund-raising e-mails since April — once highlighting her four times in a single day.
(In comparison, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, who is the third-ranking Democratic member in the Senate’s leadership, was name-checked in seven e-mails during the same period.)
“I’m going to work my heart out to make sure we take back the Senate,” Warren said last week in a rare interview on politics.
“I crisscrossed the country multiple times in 2014. I expect 2016 will be the same. I’m committed to doing whatever I can to help Democrats retake the Senate.”
Democrats believe they have a strong chance of gaining the majority in the Senate in next year’s elections after losing it last year. This time, 34 seats are up, including seven held by Republicans in states that President Obama won in 2012.
There are no Democratic senators up for election next year in places where Republican nominee Mitt Romney prevailed.
The Democratic Party needs a net gain of five seats to win a majority — or four if a Democrat also wins the White House. (In that scenario, the chamber would be split 50-50, and a Democratic vice president would cast tie-breaking votes.)
Warren has been conspicuously slower to engage in the 2016 presidential race — setting the political world atwitter about her intentions last week when she skipped a Hillary Clinton fund-raiser in Washington that was attended by every other female Democratic senator.
She cosigned a letter with her Democratic Senate colleagues in 2013 urging Clinton to run for president, but that was before Bernie Sanders, the populist Vermont senator, entered the contest with an anti-Wall Street message that is more in sync with Warren’s core beliefs.
Warren reiterated in an interview that she “most likely” will make an endorsement in the Democratic presidential primary, but wouldn’t say whether she plans to do so before the first contest, in Iowa on Feb. 1.
And she certainly did not reveal whom she would be backing.
“I don’t have a timeline for this,” Warren said.
Instead, she said, she is focusing on the Senate.
And Warren’s ties to the Democratic committee that is charged with retaking the Senate just became stronger. Her chief of staff and 2012 campaign manager, Mindy Myers, recently announced that she’s taking a key position overseeing how the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spends tens of millions of dollars in advertising money.
Republicans say they have little to fear from a national Warren juggernaut. They point to her track record last year; Democrats lost in nearly every tight race in which she endorsed.
“Why don’t you ask former congressman and failed Senate candidate Bruce Braley how helpful Elizabeth Warren was to his campaign?” said Alleigh Marre, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Senatorial Committee, making a reference to last year’s hard-fought Iowa Senate contest. Warren was among a parade of top Democrats who stumped for Braley and came up short.
That same year, Warren also held rallies for Natalie Tennant in West Virginia, Alison Grimes in Kentucky, and Mark Udall in Colorado. Lost. Lost. Lost.
“Democrats had a lousy year in 2014,” Warren said.
The take-away for Warren: Start campaigning for her Democratic colleagues earlier.
Warren pointed to two races that went well for Democrats that cycle: Al Franken’s 10-point victory over a Republican challenger in Minnesota, and Jeff Merkley’s 18-point win over his GOP challenger in Oregon.
“Both had the odds stacked against them early on,” Warren said. “But they got out there and fought for what they believed in and won their races by solid margins. Now, for me, there was a lesson in that. If we organize early and start fighting for what we believe in we can take back the Senate in 2016.”
So when Democrat Russ Feingold announced this year that he would try to win back his former Senate seat in Wisconsin, Warren pounced and said she would back his candidacy.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee made sure to spread the word, blasting out an e-mail on May 5 that breathlessly heralded her support:
“Yesterday brought the great news that Russ Feingold is IN for the Senate,” according to the e-mail. “Almost immediately, he was endorsed by progressive champion Elizabeth Warren!”
One problem with starting early: Warren risks ruffling feathers in places where she endorses ahead of a Democratic primary — particularly when the party match-up pits an establishment Democrat against a liberal challenger from the progressive wing of the party.
Welcome to Ohio. It’s a key state for the Democratic plan to retake the Senate, and Warren backed Strickland, a former governor who has a commanding lead in the polls.
But in doing so, she overlooked Democratic challenger P.G. Sittenfeld, a young Cincinnati City Council member running on a message that’s similar to Warren’s on issues like reining in Wall Street, limiting access to guns, and requiring companies to provide paid sick leave.
“She didn’t do any homework on Ted Strickland,” complained Jerry Austin, an Ohio political consultant supporting Sittenfeld.
“Or she did, and she thought ‘I have a better chance with Strickland so I’ll hold my nose.’ Only she can answer that question,” Austin said.
Warren said she gave Strickland her support before she was aware that Sittenfeld was running.
“This was not sitting down and weighing two candidates,” she said. “I worked with Ted Strickland, and that’s how I ended up endorsing him early, early in the process.”
Even in places where Warren has stayed on the sidelines, her name is being invoked by candidates trying to appeal to liberals, a measure of the potency her brand carries.
That’s true in Florida, another critical state for Democrats if they want to retake the Senate. There, a competitive Democratic primary includes a candidate, Representative Alan Grayson, who mentioned Warren’s 2012 Senate victory in his own announcement speech and is frequently compared with her.
She has endorsed only in one place where a tight Democratic primary is expected, supporting California’s attorney general, Kamala Harris, almost immediately after she declared she would seek a Senate seat.
That helped clear some of the field, though other strong opponents have emerged.
“There’s no question that her endorsement can provide a fund-raising boost and momentum for Senate candidates,” said Justin Barasky, who was the 2014 communication director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and now works at a pro-Clinton super PAC. “Especially when they’re involved in a competitive primary.”
And especially when it comes early.