COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa — When Elizabeth Warren walked into the event room next to a bowling alley here Friday evening, she effectively kicked off a presidential primary contest that is already making Democrats’ heads spin.
“There’s going to be so many candidates this year,” Scott Punteney, chair of the Pottawattamie County Democratic Party, said before Warren’s arrival. “It’s just way early.”
For Warren, that may be precisely the point. With her five-city campaign swing on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, as well as the hiring of four staffers who know the state well, the Massachusetts senator appears to be betting she can plant her flag and shape the race before other top candidates are officially in.
Speaking to a crowd of about 500 that spilled into the parking lot outside, Warren mixed the story of her biography with the economic populism she hopes will capture voters far from her base in Massachusetts.
“Every issue that we face — gun safety, environmental disaster, student loan debt, Social Security — they all intersect at this problem of corruption, they all intersect at a Washington that is working for the wealthy and well connected, and not for you,” Warren said, drawing knowing groans and cheers from the crowd as she pilloried the influence of money in politics and called for fundamental economic change, raising her voice to compensate for her microphone cutting out.
At times, Warren joked about her inexperience on the stump — although she has won two elections — and exclaimed excitedly in response to voters’ questions. Cutting funding for Planned Parenthood clinics? “Bad,” she said, before launching into a longer answer. A question on foreign policy elicited a loud “Alright!” before she identified autocratic leaders around the globe as a threat to the United States and took a dig at President Trump: “I believe that you should know the difference between your friends and your enemies.”
Warren’s visit this weekend, four days after announcing she is exploring a run for president, will be a crucial test of her appeal beyond Massachusetts, but Iowa could be a tricky battleground. She has not campaigned there in years, and while her economic message may resonate with voters, she may find some discomfort with her willingness to tangle so openly with the president and other Republicans. Still, her decision to go to Iowa first — and build up her campaign staff there — suggests she views it as critical to her efforts to rise to the top of a crowded field.
“She’s not waiting around to see if Bernie’s in the race, she’s not waiting to see if there are other women,” said Joe Trippi, a longtime campaign manager and Democratic political consultant. “Get in now, start to build your network in Iowa.”
Speaking to reporters after she took a series of questions from the audience, Warren rejected the idea that her status as a progressive firebrand makes her too liberal for a purple state like Iowa. “I have to say, on these core economic issues, on the notion of a level playing field, I think there are a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans who want our country to work better,” she said.
But Warren is already a top target for Republicans, even though the 2020 presidential race has barely begun. Trump made an effort to ensure the lingering questions over her claims of Native American heritage — and her attempt to substantiate them — will follow her to the first caucus state by tweeting a dig at the controversy earlier this week, although the issue did not come up at Friday’s event.
This weekend’s trip is Warren’s first swing through Iowa since she stumped for a Senate candidate there in 2014 — making her a latecomer to the state following visits by possible presidential candidates including Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and a particularly buzzy speech by Cory Booker last fall.
“It’s important for everybody this year. I think it’s even more important than usual, because of how fast the calendar plays out,” Trippi said, explaining that a win in Iowa might help candidates pick up a pile of delegates in California’s primary, which is scheduled to begin early voting the same day as the Iowa caucuses.
Warren’s weekend itinerary includes a mix of small and large events. After Council Bluffs, she will appear in a grand theater in Sioux City on Saturday before heading to a roundtable in Storm Lake and another event in Des Moines. She is scheduled to cap the weekend with a “conversation with women leaders” in Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines, on Sunday.
Some of the voters who squeezed in to see Warren wore “She persisted” T-shirts, referencing the time she was reprimanded by Mitch McConnell, ostensibly for speaking too long on the Senate floor. Others spoke glowingly of her work on consumer protection. But Warren tried to connect more deeply with voters by talking about her modest upbringing, far from the halls of Harvard and the Capitol with which she is more readily associated.
Some of the voters gathered in Council Bluffs drew a connection between Warren’s story and their own economic frustrations.
“I have a master’s degree, and I make as much as my dad did, and he had a high school diploma,” said Heather Reikofski, a social worker who lives in town. She said she supported Senator Bernie Sanders in 2016, but said she could see herself supporting Warren this time.
Iowa is also a place where people watching the prices of agricultural commodities such as soybeans and hogs fall under Trump’s tariffs may take a shine to Warren’s trademark message of economic populism.
“Iowa was devastated in the farm crisis in the 1980s when I grew up there and they understand what it’s like to be left behind, to have the economy shift and have the ground fall out underneath you, and Warren understands that,” said Katie Porter, a newly elected California congresswoman, in an interview outside a swearing-in-day reception for Warren at the Capitol.
Progressives who wanted to draft Warren to run for president in 2016 kicked off their campaign in the state. But that was before Sanders, of Vermont, nearly won the Iowa caucus with his populist message, and, this time around, the state’s progressives already seem to be dividing their loyalties.
A poll of likely Iowa caucus-goers taken by CNN and the Des Moines Register in December found Warren in fourth place behind Joe Biden, Beto O’Rourke, and Sanders, none of whom have announced exploratory committees. That underscores two challenges for Warren this weekend: She is not coming in as an obvious front-runner, and she might be compared, in voters’ minds, to the idealized versions of other campaigns that have yet to take shape.
“What I want to see is what the field’s going to look like, and how these individuals do in putting together outreach around the state,” said Matt McCoy, a former Democratic state senator and current Polk County supervisor, adding that Warren had called him late last year as she laid the groundwork for her presidential announcement.
“I think people in rural Iowa are going to be more open to her message than they would be if things were booming,” McCoy said.
Warren’s willingness to take on Trump in Twitter tangles and pointed public speeches could give some voters additional pause.
“I don’t know if it’s important to get into arguments with the president. I don’t think that does any good,” said Punteney, the chair of the Pottawattamie County Democratic Party, who said he is nevertheless looking for a candidate “who’s definitely going to stand up for themselves.”
On Wednesday, Warren’s exploratory committee announced it had added four campaign operatives in Iowa, including one who was Sanders’ caucus director in 2016, which could be seen as a progressive coup for Warren. Pat Rynard, a political blogger in Iowa, wrote that it was “noteworthy” Warren had already taken a considerable bite out of the universe of Iowa political staffers.
“Taking this group of people off the board so early may put pressure on other potential candidates to speed up their timelines,” Rynard wrote.