Could Warren-mania hurt progressive Democrats?

Updated 10:37 AM EDT, Wed March 25, 2015
New York CNN —  

Martin O’Malley says he wants to bring “fundamental change to the culture of Wall Street.” Jim Webb is lashing out against the “greed and irresponsibility in the financial sector.” For years, Bernie Sanders has railed against corporate excesses.

But they all have one significant shortcoming in the eyes of some progressive activists who otherwise agree with their message: They’re not Elizabeth Warren.

In the earliest stage of the 2016 presidential campaign, Warren’s devout fans – long enamored of the Massachusetts senator’s anti-Wall Street, middle-class-warrior rhetoric – insist that they’re simply not interested in anyone else. The activists behind the Draft Warren movement say that on the ground, it’s Warren’s personal story and years-long fight for economic equality that’s getting people fired up about a possible alternative to Hillary Clinton.

READ: Clinton trumpets income inequality message in wake of Warren push

Their polite refusal to back another Democrat, at least for the time being, underscores the unusual cult of personality that has developed around Warren, who in just a few years has transformed herself from a Harvard law professor into a political icon and leader of the Senate’s liberal wing.

But it also raises tough questions about how relevant progressive activists will be in 2016. Will their Warren-mania crowd out other potential Clinton challengers, who could benefit from their energized organizing efforts in the face of overwhelming establishment support for Clinton? If Warren truly means it when she says she won’t run for president, will activists transfer their support elsewhere? And if they do, will that happen too late to make a difference?

For now, the Draft Warren campaign is moving ahead with full force – and, so far, without much impact. The first-term Democrat and one-time overseer of the Troubled Asset Relief Program bank bailout has stressed dozens of times that she will not run in 2016.

“As Sen. Warren has said many times, she is not running for president and doesn’t support the draft efforts,” Warren press secretary Lacey Rose told CNN.

“She’s been saying that she’s not going to run, and I take her at her word on that,” said Carol Fowler, the former chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and a Clinton supporter. “Surely, eventually, her fondest fans will take her at her word and will begin to look around.”

Supporters only have eyes for Warren

But so far, Warren’s supporters only have eyes for her.

Her backers are reminding voters that Warren was a champion of economic justice years before she ever became a public figure, dating back to her tenure in academia. Her fans point to Warren’s humble beginning as just one of many things that set her apart from most other politicians.

“She really comes from the same background as a lot of regular people here,” said Sam King, a 23-year-old student at Western Illinois University who is volunteering for the Draft Warren campaign in Quad Cities, Iowa. “Her father worked as a janitor, he had to support the household. She’s not from wealth, and just the way she talks is very inspiring.”

READ: Elizabeth Warren challenges Obama (and Clinton) on trade

Adam Benforado, Warren’s former student and teaching assistant at Harvard law school, said he remembers Warren captivating her students in the classroom with a kind of magnetic energy and “no BS” sensibility that he has since seen her demonstrate in congressional hearings and on the Senate floor.

“For me, it was a mix of fear and awe,” said Benforado, who is now a law professor at Drexel University. “She wants a straight answer from people and I think that’s what people so desperately want. … It’s that genuine real talk that I think is very hard to find on Capitol Hill.”

On Sunday, the Boston Globe’s editorial board added its voice to the chorus of Warren supporters, warning that it would be a “big mistake” for Democrats to allow Clinton to win the party’s nomination without facing a primary opponent.

“Unlike Clinton, or any of the prospective Republican candidates, Warren has made closing the economic gaps in America her main political priority,” the editorial board said.

Many progressives want a candidate who will aggressively take on banks and battle income inequality. While former Secretary of State Clinton has years-long friendships with powerful donors in the finance industry, Warren is famous for her animosity towards Wall Street, and, unlike Clinton, is a relative newcomer to Washington and the political world.

The senator is also a compelling alternative for Democrats weary of electing a member of a political dynasty, but who still want to see the country elect its first female president.

“People are always talking about how painful it would be to see another Clinton-Bush race,” said Jack Califano, a 21-year-old Warren fan attending Sarah Lawrence University in New York City. “And she’s a woman – that gives her a competitive edge against Hillary Clinton that O’Malley or Bernie Sanders certainly doesn’t have.”

Warren backers aren’t taking ‘no’ for an answer

The Run, Warren, Run campaign, jointly launched by and Democracy for America, has begun laying down roots in early states like Iowa, hiring staff, recruiting volunteers and soliciting donations. The online petitions, “house parties” and social media outreach are focused on rallying the liberal base around the core issues that vaulted Warren to a liberal folk hero status.

The activists engaged in these efforts insist they’re running a purely positive, pro-Warren campaign rather than opposing other Democrats eyeing the White House. It’s not that they don’t like the likelier Clinton challengers, it’s that they aren’t drawn to them the way they are drawn to Warren.

“People come to us and say if she doesn’t get in the race, does that mean you’re going to push for Bernie? And that assumes this is somehow an anti-Clinton campaign. And the Draft Warren effort decidedly is not,” said Neil Sroka of Democracy for America.

READ: Webb hires Iowa coordinator for would-be 2016 bid

But Democrats outside the core of the Warren fan club question the value of devoting resources and manpower to a seemingly futile draft campaign.

Not all Warren fans have gotten behind the Draft Warren campaign. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which played an active role in drafting Warren to run for the Senate, is focused on encouraging all Democratic presidential candidates, including Clinton, to take a more Warren-esque approach to their policy views.

One Democratic operative said that by working to get Warren into the 2016 race, rather than simply working for the issues she stands for, the Draft Warren activists are missing the chance to shape the debate in the Democratic primary.

“By focusing on the cult of personality around Elizabeth Warren, they’re completely missing out on the opportunity to be a part of a larger and more important conversation about where Democrats stand on critical issues,” said the Democratic strategist, who declined to go on the record in order to speak candidly without angering activists.

The concern is that the Draft Warren activists may be wasting their time on a wish-list candidate, rather than boosting others who are more serious about a White House bid.

Frank Chiodo, a former Iowa legislator who attended a Warren event in downtown Des Moines, said her supporters are mistaken if they believe they’ll eventually be able to seamlessly transfer the groundswell of support for Warren to another non-Clinton candidate.

“If they’re organized and stand together and decide to make a choice as a group to support a particular candidate in a caucus situation, it definitely has an impact,” Chiodo said. “But that’s not an easy thing to pull off.”

In the meantime, a small group of potential Democratic White House candidates are forging ahead with their campaign explorations.

Other Democrats jostle for position

Webb, a Vietnam veteran who served as Virginia senator from 2007 to 2013, launched an exploratory campaign for president in November. Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats, said in a recent speech that if he ran for president, it would be “to win.”

O’Malley, who finished his second term as Maryland governor earlier this year, has been on a media blitz of his own, sounding off on Wall Street reform, Social Security expansion and reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, which separates commercial banking from riskier investing activities.

On paper, their economic populist views should be appealing to Warren fans.

“Is Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate of Wall Street, ever going to get their support? I don’t think so,” said Phil Noble, a South Carolina Democratic activist and O’Malley supporter. “I expect a majority – at least a very large portion – of Warren supporters to go over to O’Malley if we fast-forward three of four months down the road.”

But so far, there are no signs that the Draft Warren activists are getting ready to look to somebody else.

“We’re just focused on Sen. Warren and making sure she hears our voices,” said Veronica Tessler, a small business owner volunteering with Run, Warren, Run in Iowa City. “I’m not worried.”