In her bid for a West Virginia Senate seat, Democrat Natalie Tennant is steering clear of President Obama, worried that his tough environmental policies and unpopularity in coal country might hurt her chances in November.
But at a recent fundraiser in quaint Shepherdstown, Tennant had little problem welcoming a fellow Democrat who is far more left-leaning than the president and no friend of the coal industry: Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Warren's visit to the eastern panhandle drew a jam-packed crowd and raised a tidy $90,000 for Tennant's campaign.
Warren, who defeated incumbent Scott Brown to win her Senate seat just two years ago, is emerging as the Democratic Party's latest campaign trail superstar. She can rev up the progressive base in Democratic strongholds and appeal to voters in some unlikely places, including conservative states.
Thanks largely to her crusades against Wall Street profiteering and her plain-spoken style, Warren has become one of the most prolific fundraisers in the effort to help Democrats retain control of the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win the majority.
So far in this election cycle, she has raised more than $3 million for fellow Democrats. Although that's just a fraction of what top party leaders like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi haul in for congressional candidates, it's impressive for a newcomer like Warren compared with other ascendant colleagues.
For instance, Warren has doled out 10 times as much in direct contributions for Senate candidates as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a tea partyer and potential Republican presidential candidate, campaign records show.
Warren is filling a void left by the president's low approval ratings and the dearth of other national Democratic leaders with an ability to motivate voters in tight races to turn out this fall.
"Who in national government and even national political circles could do what she does?" said Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. "Not Nancy Pelosi. Certainly not Harry Reid. There's kind of a shortage of people on the Democratic side that can generate interest."
Warren raised $339,000 over two days in Kentucky for Alison Lundergan Grimes in her effort to unseat Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader — despite the fact that Warren's support for stricter environmental controls over the coal industry is not shared by Grimes.
Warren has hauled in six figures for colleagues on safer Democratic ground, including more than $300,000 for Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in Oregon.
"Sen. Warren believes it is critical for Democrats to maintain control of the Senate, and she is working hard to help make that happen,'' said Warren spokeswoman Lacey Rose.
A former Harvard Law School professor whose bid to lead the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was scuttled by Republican opposition, Warren has pursued a singular focus on keeping watch over the powerful banking and finance industry's treatment of everyday Americans.
At 65, she is also a cardigan-wearing grandmother with glasses who can come across as a fresh face and a Washington outsider. Her consumer advocacy work and support for stronger government regulation have made her the darling of progressives, and her Main Street over Wall Street message resonates even with moderate Democrats.
"I am determined — fiercely determined — to do everything I can to help us once again be the America that creates opportunities for anyone who works hard and plays by the rules," Warren writes in her autobiography, "A Fighting Chance," where she highlights her own family's struggles as she grew up in Oklahoma. Her red-state roots lend credibility to the message, strategists say.
"There's a rising economic populist tide in America, and Elizabeth Warren is very much the personification of that movement," said Adam Green, an early Warren backer and co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which supports like-minded candidates for Congress. "It's not just in blue states. It's also in red-state America and purple America, where people want someone fighting for the little guy."
At the West Virginia campaign stop in a liberal-leaning college town, Warren's appearance drew an enthusiastic crowd of 400, some of whom drove all day to attend the event. More important for Tennant, Warren tapped into the extensive network of coast-to-coast donors she assembled for her 2012 election bid and encouraged them to send money to help Tennant replace retiring Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV. Tennant's office credits Warren with raising a total of about $150,000.
But enlisting Warren on the campaign trail carries risks. Republicans are increasingly trying to brand her as the latest liberal addition to the triumvirate of Obama, Pelosi and Reid, the Senate majority leader.
Brook Hougesen, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Warren "one of the most extreme liberal" senators. Strategists say if Warren continues her high-profile campaigning, it's only a matter of time before she joins the other Democratic leaders as a star villain in Republican attack ads.
A spokeswoman for Shelley Moore Capito, the Republican candidate in the West Virginia race, predicted that Warren's visit would "absolutely cost Natalie Tennant votes in November." Amy Graham, the spokeswoman, added, "Natalie Tennant and Elizabeth Warren might be a match made in heaven, but they are quite the opposite for West Virginia."
Despite entreaties from some quarters, Warren has insisted she has no intention of running for president in 2016. But her stature in the party will continue to ascend if she can help propel Democratic candidates to victory, particularly in predominantly white, rural states where Obama's popularity is weak.
"She's tapping into an anger out there that is increasingly being felt by those on both the left and the right," said James P. Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide in the Senate. "That's why she's successful."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times