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'Almost a home-state situation': Warren faces New Hampshire test

POLITICO logo POLITICO 1/11/2019 By Natasha Korecki
Elizabeth Warren standing in front of a crowd: Elizabeth Warren took early steps to lay groundwork in New Hampshire. © Nati Harnik/AP Photo Elizabeth Warren took early steps to lay groundwork in New Hampshire.

As the senator from the state next door, Elizabeth Warren begins with a built-in advantage in New Hampshire. But her proximity to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state is also creating soaring expectations that could haunt her — the last three Massachusetts Democrats who ran in New Hampshire all finished first.

That history forms the backdrop for Warren’s weekend visit to New Hampshire, her first journey to the state since 2016 when she campaigned for the state’s Democratic ticket and specifically for Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t much help back then — Bernie Sanders, who hails from neighboring Vermont, ended up walloping Clinton in New Hampshire by 23 points.

“I don’t think any candidate from outside of New Hampshire should have any illusions of what the game is here. Either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in all likelihood will win here,” said Jim Demers, a longtime fixture in New Hampshire Democratic politics who co-chaired Barack Obama’s 2008 state effort. “Whichever one of the two that doesn’t win here will leave the person severely wounded when they try to move on to the next round of states. It’s very difficult to be a neighbor and lose New Hampshire and have any momentum to move on to the next round of state primaries.”

That’s why Warren’s team took early steps to lay organizational groundwork and build goodwill across the state. Two Warren staffers worked for the New Hampshire Democratic Party during the midterm elections, when Warren ranked second after a potential 2020 competitor, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), in terms of fundraising for local Democrats. Since November, Warren has personally made dozens of calls into New Hampshire to initiate or solidify relationships with grassroots activists and state political leaders.

With this weekend’s visit — which begins with a stop at a private event in Concord Friday and includes an organizing event in Manchester Saturday — Warren will attempt to build on the momentum from her first campaign foray trip last week. Warren held at-capacity events in stops across Iowa, drawing a cross section of Democrats curious about the 2020 field and eager to get the primary underway.

In New Hampshire, Democratic party leaders say enthusiasm is also high — and large crowds are expected.

“Across the board, people in New Hampshire are pretty eager to have a robust 2020 primary and to start hearing from these candidates,” said Lucas Meyer, president of New Hampshire Young Democrats of America. “I think the field is wide open and people want to hear why they’re the best fit for this race.”

Meyer says Warren’s familiarity with the region will be an asset in her quest to claim New Hampshire. “I’m sure she can correctly pronounce Kancamagus Highway,” he noted. “I doubt if Eric Garcetti can.”

There’s already a degree of cross-pollination between Massachusetts and New Hampshire politics and political staff, and Warren’s past visits to help boost Democratic candidates in 2014 and 2016 haven’t gone unnoticed by the local party.

“It’s easy to have your state people cross the border and help out with the campaigning. There are relationships built across the border over the years,” said former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Kathleen Sullivan, who said some members of Warren’s campaign team already have long-standing relationships with New Hampshire politicians, giving her a potential leg up on organizing. “There’s lots of people involved in Massachusetts politics who have experience in New Hampshire campaigns …There’s a body of knowledge they already have and already built.”

All of that has historically helped Massachusetts Democrats win past New Hampshire presidential primaries — among them John Kerry in 2004; Paul Tsongas in 1992; and Michael Dukakis in 1988.

That track record of success only ratchets up the pressure on Warren’s campaign. Judy Reardon, a longtime New Hampshire Democratic operative called the state a must-win for Warren.

“There’s going to be a big field of candidates running and I would think given that she would need to win in the neighboring, early state,” Reardon said. “If Kamala Harris runs, she better win California. So, yeah, New Hampshire’s almost a home-state situation for Elizabeth Warren.”

While Warren might have to contend with Sanders, who won a runaway victory in the state in 2016, the primary landscape will be dramatically different four years later — it’s no binary choice between an establishment candidate and an against-the-grain competitor. And primary voters who aligned ideologically with Sanders could have three or four similar choices next year, including Warren, said Michael Ceraso, Sanders’ 2016 New Hampshire GOTV director and deputy state director.

“With Bernie, we would have these huge rallies that people would talk about. But a lot of times it was just the same folks filling up the room,” Ceraso said. “Is there going to be another candidate that’s going to be able to emulate that star power? Or are these folks going to be all split up because it’s not a two-person race anymore? You’re going to have four really good progressives. All those things can potentially cut and slice up the Bernie followers.”

Warren has the benefit of having the Boston media market bleed into New Hampshire, though that hasn’t necessarily amounted to an advantage yet. Warren didn’t spend a dollar on TV ads in her 2018 reelection campaign and the leading newspaper in her state, the Boston Globe — which reaches New Hampshire — suggested she sit out 2020.

The Globe’s reasoning in part centered on Gov. Charlie Baker’s superior performance over Warren — winning his reelection contest by 33 points in November versus Warren’s 24-point win — even though he’s a Republican in a deep blue state. Baker and pro-Baker groups, however, spent nearly $11 million on TV ads last cycle while Warren banked her funds.

By holding back on pricey TV ads, Warren heads into her exploratory presidential bid with $12.5 million in the bank — more than any other senator who was up for reelection in 2018 and is considering a 2020 run.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that boasts of 1 million members nationwide and would support Warren if she makes a full-fledged run for office, said its own post-midterm election polling in New Hampshire showed former Vice President Joe Biden and Sanders leading a pack of five Democrats.

PCCC co-founder Adam Green said the poll, which was not released publicly, showed Warren registering in the double digits, alongside former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, with Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) coming up behind.

“It’s a helpful reminder of the environment (Warren is) stepping into as she starts on square one,” Green said. “This visit represents Warren starting to earn votes in a state where Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders start off with the highest name ID and are the only past vote getters in the state.”

Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said it would be “terribly unfair to Bernie to hold him to the standard of 2016,” should he launch a presidential bid. But he acknowledged Sanders likely has a head start in what’s expected to be a sprawling Democratic field.

“He certainly starts off with significant advantages of deep relationships over the decades here in the state, strong grassroots organization and near-100 percent name recognition among the primary voters,” Buckley said. “But with so many other people out campaigning, it is just not possible for anybody — no matter who they were in this sort of crowded field — I don’t believe anyone’s going to get anywhere near even 50 percent of the vote.”

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