DES MOINES, IOWA — Just two months ago, Sen. Elizabeth Warren risked political backlash here by opting to avoid a trip to Iowa during the critical midterm elections — the only major potential 2020 candidate to do so.
But less than a week into the new year, Warren already flipped that on its head, becoming the first major candidate to land on the ground in the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus state, lapping up media attention, locking down key staff and organizers, and capitalizing on pent-up 2020 Democratic excitement.
“I’m here tonight because I believe. I believe in what we can do,” a hoarse-sounding Warren told a capacity crowd in Des Moines on Saturday night, just one of five stops during her Iowa blitz. “I believe that this, right now, is our moment. Our moment to dream big, to fight hard and to take back this country.”
With a New Year’s Eve announcement of an exploratory presidential bid, Warren already beat several competitors to the punch and was dominating the news cycle last week nationally.
That’s after the 2020 aspirant suffered setbacks last year, when she was widely criticized for the clumsy October release of the results of a DNA test in an attempt to address her previous Native American ancestry claims. And even as she boasts of having the most advanced presidential campaign-in-waiting, Warren has lagged behind former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke in early polls both nationally and in Iowa.
But on Saturday, her early-out-of-the-gates visit looked more than promising. Here, hundreds of people snaked around one block then wrapped around another, waiting outside for her evening appearance. In all, more than 1,000 people packed the venue and spilled into an overflow area.
“The bad news is, I’ve got a cold. The good news is: Nevertheless, I persist,” she said to roaring applause.
If there’s a message from the vibrant crowds, it’s that Iowa Democrats are far from weary of an impending 2020 campaign, despite a bruising midterm election fight. Instead, 2020 cannot get started soon enough, according to nearly two dozen people who attended Warren events and talked to POLITICO.
While some already backed Warren, many who showed up at the senator’s organizing stops were just starting their examination of what’s to be an extensive Democratic roster. Many expressed deep frustrations over Trump administration policies and described a readiness to begin hearing from what’s expected to be a sprawling Democratic field.
“I take nothing away from Sen. Warren’s visit, I think people are genuinely excited to see her,” said Penny Rosfjord, an Iowa Democratic Party central committee member and 4th Congressional District chair. “But honestly, I think everybody is ready. They’re saying: We’re Iowa, we’re ready. Come on down. We want to meet you. We want to know about you. We’re going to challenge you.”
The turnouts were typical for Warren’s three-day tour, in which potential caucus-goers poured into each of Warren’s events. On Friday, an overflow crowd stood in sub-20-degree teperatures to watch her through the open garage entrance of a bowling alley.
“People are hungry for hope — hope there’s something out there that’s going to turn this around, because this is just scary,” Deb Schwiesow, who saw Warren in Council Bluffs, said about the excitement behind the visit. “I want a very strong Democrat to run against Trump. I want this nightmare to end. I think we’re just off track, we’re off track as a country and we have to get back on center.”
Last year, Warren took some hits for skipping Iowa during the midterm elections even as everyone from Biden to Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker held fundraising events in competitive races. Warren had sent staff and resources to the state and to the Democratic Party here but, facing her own reelection, she didn’t campaign on the ground for any candidates.
While Iowa is expected to soon be overrun with Warren’s would-be competitors, this weekend she had the place to herself.
“The energy here has just been amazing,” said Rob Gilmer of Council Bluffs, among those who stood outside to hear Warren’s remarks. “Hearing the notice, then driving here, and the crowds — it’s just incredible. This is what politics is all about.”
Warren had a captive audience in which she tested campaign themes of taking on major corporations, challenging government corruption and exploring economic inequality while weaving a personal narrative that focused on her family’s financial struggles when growing up in Oklahoma.
That narrative centered on stresses on her family after her father suffered health issues and her mother, fearing she and her children could lose it all, stared at a special dress on the bed.
“She was crying, and she was saying, ‘We will not lose this house, we will not lose this house, we will not lose this house,’” Warren says in a tale she repeats at events. “She was 50 years old. She had never worked outside the house, and she was terrified.”
Warren goes on to say that while a minimum wage job propped up her family back then, it couldn’t now.
“Why is the path getting rockier? And particularly rockier for people of color?” she said.
In her Iowa swing, the Massachusetts senator made a rare move in kicking off the Iowa campaign in the western, rural part of the state — Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Storm Lake — deep Republican territory, at least part of which is in the congressional district of conservative firebrand Rep. Steve King.
“That usually doesn’t happen. Democratic campaigns usually start in the bigger, more Democratic areas,” said David Yepsen, an Iowa-based political analyst and a former longtime dean of the Iowa press corps. “It’s a recognition by her that if national Democrats are going to get to 270 electoral votes in 2020 — and have any hope of winning back the U.S. Senate, they’ve got to run better in rural states and regions all across the country. Wisconsin, central Pennsylvania, Michigan, etc. These depressed areas have been a breeding ground for Trump supporters and she’s betting she might be able to evoke a populist response of her own.”