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, Rep. Gary Peters, in Michigan on Friday.
Candidates such as Peters or Sen. 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.
Warren gave a nod to the differences she has with Tennant, saying on Monday that they're in agreement where it matters.
"So here's the deal: Natalie Tennant and I do not agree on every issue," Warren told the crowd. "But on the core issues "¦ Natalie and I agree. I watch Natalie, I see her. She's strong, she's independent, she doesn't let anybody roll over her. What I like about Natalie is, she's ready to fight "¦ for America's families."
Besides the specific message Warren brings to the table, she's also filling a void in Democratic politics this year: The party has a shortage of viable campaign-trail surrogates.
There's the president, who's too polarizing a figure to be helpful in many red states across the map; Vice President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton are likely to hit the road in his stead, as they did frequently during the 2010 midterms. Hillary Clinton will reportedly begin campaigning for Democratic candidates this fall; thus far, though, she's kept above the fray and has campaigned only for Marjorie Margolies, Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law, who ran unsuccessfully for the House in Pennsylvania.
But unlike the Republican side, where the sheer number of prospective candidates jockeying ahead of 2016 provides a long list of national figures to campaign with GOP candidates—Rep. Paul Ryan, for example, spent Monday campaigning in Charleston, W.Va., with Capito—Democrats really have few other pols with enough national stature to be of use on the campaign trail.
"You don't have a dozen flowers blooming in the Democratic Party—people who are out there trying to run for president," said Shrum, noting that most Democratic pols are waiting for Clinton to decide on a 2016 bid. "And therefore you don't have a lot of [Democratic] surrogates who are getting a lot of attention."
Despite being vilified by national Republicans—indeed, Warren's event here with Tennant drew a release from the National Republican Senatorial Committee questioning Tennant's rationale for campaigning with "one of the most liberal and extreme senators in Washington" and a video from American Crossroads calling her the "queen of class warfare"—Democrats in red states clearly think the benefits of having her in town outweigh the disadvantages.
Plus, there's really no downside for Warren within the progressive community that supports her so heavily—even her most liberal supporters acknowledge there's not much she can do in a Republican-controlled Senate next year.
"The bottom line is that if we don't have control of the Senate in our hands, we're not going to be able to accomplish the victories that Elizabeth Warren needs to get progressive policies passed," said Chamberlain. "This is a key time to support candidates that you might be less likely to support in years you don't need them."
Although Warren herself has said she's not interested in running for president in 2016, her activity this year gives supporters a reason to hope she may consider a national run down the line.
Warren's 2014 campaign stops show what it "could be like to see a national campaign for Elizabeth Warren for office," Chamberlain said. "Whether or not we're talking 2016, 2020, or 2024, I think we're looking at the precursors of an Elizabeth Warren run for president."