Elizabeth Warren forges a 2020 machine




Elizabeth Warren waves to an audience.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been interviewing national operatives for senior positions in a possible 2020 presidential campaign. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

2020 Elections

The Massachusetts senator’s aides have been quietly shopping for presidential campaign headquarters space in the Boston area.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has the core of her 2020 team in place if she runs for president. She has the seed money — there’s $12.5 million ready to go, left over from her recent Senate run — and a massive email list she’s amassed over years, boosted by a $3.3 million investment in digital infrastructure and advertising in the last election alone. Her aides have been quietly shopping for presidential campaign headquarters space in the Boston area in recent weeks, according to a source with knowledge of the move.

All that’s left is for her to give the green light.

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When and if she does, she’ll be rolling out arguably the most advanced and sweeping infrastructure in the Democratic field, a plug-and-play campaign that could give her a massive head start on nearly every contender in the burgeoning primary roster, with only Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) coming close.

So far, Warren has merely said she would “take a hard look” at running for president. People with knowledge of her strategy said she has not yet made a final decision but if she joins the field, Warren will be among the earlier candidates to announce.

In the five weeks since the midterm elections, Warren has operated like a candidate.

She began interviewing national operatives for senior positions in a possible presidential campaign since before the midterms. Currently there are discussions with veteran early-state political operatives, including in Iowa, about the possibility of signing on, though no contracts have been yet signed. And if Warren moves forward with a presidential bid, she will do so with the nucleus of a team she’s trusted for years and build from there, sources with knowledge of the operation tell POLITICO.

One major player already is Dan Geldon, a longtime Warren staffer and onetime Harvard Law School student under Warren who also served as her Senate chief of staff for three years. Sources with knowledge of the campaign say the senator is eyeing Geldon to take on the role of campaign manager. Other core staffers likely to be part of a Warren presidential team are finance director Michael Pratt; former Harry Reid aide Kristen Orthman, who handles communications; Gabrielle Farrell, who most recently headed communications for the New Hampshire Democratic Party; and Roger Lau, the campaign manager for Warren’s Senate reelection who also has New Hampshire experience.

The campaign-in-waiting is working with the mail firm Deliver Strategies, and the digital firms Bully Pulpit and Blue State.

Just below the top ranks, the Massachusetts senator has a nearly full-blown enterprise prepped for deployment: more than 50 people were reported on Warren’s latest campaign payroll, which counts field workers. In addition to that, several dozen more staffers who assisted Warren in her Senate campaign and were part of the Massachusetts Democratic Party payroll could be tapped to move into a presidential campaign.

“It looks like she has her national apparatus in place and all she has to do is pull the trigger,” said Jim Demers, a New Hampshire-based consultant who served as state campaign co-chair for Barack Obama and for Hillary Clinton in 2016. “I think a big part of it is, there’s a lot of candidates who are going to do some hard thinking over the holiday weeks to say it’s a go or not a go.”

The senator herself has been busy personally calling scores of Democrats in the four early presidential states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, reaching out to former and recently elected officials, those who ran for office unsuccessfully, labor leaders and grassroots activists.

According to more than half a dozen people who said they had personally received calls or spoken to others who had, Warren poses similar questions on the calls: “What have you learned in 2018? I’m thinking about running. What do you think?”

“I think she’s very serious in taking a look at this,” said a former elected official in Iowa who was among those to speak to Warren but asked not to be named. That person said Warren said she was planning to visit Iowa in short order, but didn’t give a specific timeline. “She asked me what I thought would be the issues and what she should be talking about and listening for.”

A person with knowledge of Warren’s strategy estimated she contacted some 100 people in the early presidential states since the midterms.

“Let me say that of all the people who are running that I can see from my perspective — and I don’t have visibility into everything everybody is doing — there isn’t anybody who had done more to position themselves for 2020 than she had up to that point,” Longtime Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod said of Warren in a recent taping of Politico’s “Off Message” podcast. “I’ve talked to a bunch of candidates who said, ‘You wouldn’t believe who called me on election night. Like, the first call I got was from Elizabeth Warren,’ winners and losers. And she has a full staff going just to service 2018 candidates and provide assistance in whatever way they need it. That’s shrewd. I mean, she’s laid out some policy positions on reform, for example, that are shrewd positions, important positions. I’ve been impressed by that.”

Warren invested heavily in the midterm elections, even as she was running for reelection back home, raising or donating nearly $11 million on Democrats. She deployed staff to each of the early states, sent out emails on behalf of midterm candidates and recorded a video to Iowa Democrats, urging them to vote.

“If you live in Iowa, always, always answer Unknown calls,” longtime Iowa field organizer and activist Kimberly Strope-Boggus posted on Facebook last week. “Missed Elizabeth Warrens call … sad face.”

What Warren didn’t do, however, is actually visit Iowa or New Hampshire, unlike a slew of the potential candidates with whom she’ll likely compete. But unlike many of them, she had a reelection campaign back home in 2018, and a need to show strength in her home state performance.

Strope-Boggus said she never reconnected with Warren by phone but noted that she’s already personally met several 2020 potential candidates, including Harris, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, California Rep. Eric Swalwell and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, among others. Booker not only took a selfie with her, but later mailed her a copy of the photo complete with a personal note of thanks.

“For all of those candidates, elected officials who put resources here in Iowa, I’m very grateful, I will remember that when it comes to caucus,” Strope-Boggus said, adding that she hopes Warren is soon added to the list but didn’t hold it against her for not showing up thus far. “Merkley, Swalwell, [former Vice President Joe] Biden made a stop through here. That’s just to name a few of them. Those who came and helped in the midterm, that means a lot because they not only care about the nation but Iowa as well.”

Yet even as Warren’s robust, would-be presidential campaign is ready for takeoff operationally, recent stumbles have raised concerns about her durability. Chief among them was her rollout of a DNA test and video, which attempted to put to rest nettlesome questions about her Native American heritage — an issue President Donald Trump delights in mocking, derisively calling Warren “Pocahontas.”

The senator’s effort backfired, only bringing more attention to the issue and leading Democrats to accuse Warren of playing right into Trump’s hands.

At home, where she was recently elected to a second term, there are few signs of an outpouring of support for a 2020 bid. A September poll of Massachusetts voters showed only 32 percent wanted her to run for president, compared to 33 percent favoring a run by former Sen. John Kerry, and 38 percent saying former Gov. Deval Patrick should launch a presidential bid.

While Patrick’s decision last week to bow out of the 2020 race was viewed as a potential benefit to Warren, freeing up Massachusetts-based operatives, donors and activists who might have otherwise been conflicted over the two, any relief was short-lived. Two days later, the Boston Globe — her hometown paper, with a circulation that reaches into New Hampshire — panned her White House prospects.

“Warren missed her moment in 2016, and there’s reason to be skeptical of her prospective candidacy in 2020. While Warren won reelection, her margin of victory in November suggests there’s a ceiling on her popularity; Baker garnered more votes than she did in a state that is supposed to be a Democratic haven,” the Boston Globe editorial board wrote. “While Warren is an effective and impactful senator with an important voice nationally, she has become a divisive figure.”

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