Why Is Elizabeth Warren Campaigning in Red States?

With an unpopular Democrat in the White House, Warren is proving an effective surrogate—and raising her national profile.
Timothy D. Easley/AP

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va.—Eleven days ago, West Virginia Democratic Senate candidate Natalie Tennant was brandishing a rifle in a local parade.

Today, she's standing next to liberal icon Elizabeth Warren on stage.

It may trigger some cognitive dissonance to picture Warren in one of the reddest states on the 2014 Senate map—but the freshman senator from Massachusetts has nothing to lose and everything to gain by helping out Democratic candidates in important races this year, particularly if she's considering a national campaign in 2016 or beyond.

She's proving that she can be a good Democratic soldier by helping the party where and when it needs her most, and she's proving that her appeal and the appeal of her populist message extends far beyond deep-blue Massachusetts.

While Warren has used her fundraising prowess to send pleas on behalf of many 2014 candidates, she's making more-frequent in-person appearances this summer, a trend her team says will continue through November. Monday's West Virginia event was Warren's fourth stop for a 2014 Senate candidate; she'll campaign with her fifth 2014 candidate, Representative Gary Peters, in Michigan on Friday.

Candidates such as Peters or Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, for whom Warren raised money back in late May, seem much more of a natural fit. Others, like Tennant and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, appear less so.

But Warren's ability to move easily from blue states to red states is proof she has "become a serious player" on the national stage, said longtime Democratic consultant Bob Shrum.

"One thing that has become clear is that the caricature of her as somehow or other too far left is entirely wrong," he said. "She's campaigning in West Virginia, she's campaigning in Kentucky … the [campaign] people there are smart enough to know what's going to help them and what's going to hurt them."

Warren's star power was certainly on display in West Virginia on Monday, when she walked on stage to a standing ovation and deafening applause from the audience of more than 400 people, some of whom shouted things like "2016!" or "2020!" Much of her speech focused on the need to fight back against Wall Street and on the student-loan interest-rate legislation she's championed, both issues that played well with the crowd.

That's similar to the explanation Warren's team gave for why she's hitting the trail so frequently: She wants to elect more Democrats to the Senate to support the Democratic agenda. The candidates she's helping are thrilled to have her boosting them—and, should they get elected, could be her allies on critical issues going forward.

"Senator Warren believes we need more people in Washington speaking up for American families who just want a fair shot to succeed, and she will continue to support 2014 candidates so that Democrats maintain control of the Senate," said spokeswoman Lacey Rose.

National Democrats say Warren's populist rhetoric taps into the anger among working-class voters of all political persuasions, who are angry with Wall Street and angry with Washington. That message works particularly well in West Virginia, where Tennant's campaign is trying hard to portray GOP candidate Shelley Moore Capito as too cozy with Wall Street.

For Warren, testing her message in less-friendly territory will help broaden her appeal as she aims to demonstrate—both to her party and to voters across the country—that she's a political force to be reckoned with.

"Elizabeth Warren can prove that a progressive, populist message is very powerful and successful in a red state," said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive group Democracy for America.

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Emily Schultheis is a political reporter for National Journal.

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