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Elizabeth Warren is the left’s early favorite for 2020

Netroots Nation was Warrenmania.

Democratic National Convention: Day Four
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center on July 28, 2016, in Philadelphia.
Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

NEW ORLEANS — The biggest yearly event of plugged-in, progressive activists was Warrenmania.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren broke out from a slate of potential 2020 contenders who delivered mainstage speeches at the 2018 Netroots Nation. The Massachusetts senator brought a packed ballroom of progressives to their feet multiple times to cheer her on Saturday.

“We’re going to have to fight uphill. Me? I’m going up that hill. And I hope you are too,” Warren said to the crowd. “And I hope that you’ll reach your hand out and bring someone else along for the climb. Because we can only make it up that hill together.”

The speech itself could have appealed to a broad audience — her message was unity, around the idea of uplifting the middle class and working families. She didn’t mention progressive policies like Medicare-for-all by name.

Still, the crowd loved it. Audience members waved signs with the word “PERSIST” in capital letters (a nod to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s famous line about Warren — “Nevertheless, she persisted”).

The performance comes as Warren makes moves that could set her up for a presidential run, including reaching out to elected officials in key presidential primary states like Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada — the kind of figures who can help her do the nitty-gritty work of getting out the vote. Warren’s latest appearance at Netroots could shore up her support with progressive activist groups.

While activists are interested in learning more about Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and the growing list of other 2020 names (Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Sherrod Brown of Ohio among them), many believe Warren already fits the bill — and can bridge the gap between establishment Democrats and the left-leaning base.

“There’s not any other candidate I think, other than Bernie Sanders, that has the standing within the grassroots base of the party the way Elizabeth Warren does,” said Neil Sroka, the communications director for Democracy for America, a progressive PAC founded by former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean. “She has a national profile and, especially among grassroots progressives, has a reputation as a fighter and truth teller that goes on for almost a decade at this point.”

Sanders was notably absent from this year’s Netroots, but his influence was acute. His policy positions are now mainstream among his Democratic Senate colleagues, raising the question of whether progressives would support another candidate who embraced his views.

“She is that person; she’s not just running on it because it’s ascendant,” said Sroka.

Warren has been speaking at Netroots since before she was a US senator. Many activists feel that Warren, like Sanders, has already proved she’s a true progressive, having helped establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau banking watchdog, and demonstrating a fiery streak in the Senate.

The conference has been around for a little more than a decade, but it can be an early indicator of where the party’s most engaged and dedicated parts of the base are — as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias explained. Many activist groups won’t formally endorse for a while, but they are paying close attention to the 2020 lineup.

Why it matters to 2020 hopefuls what Netroots-goers think

Three top potential 2020 Democrats attended this year’s event and they all supported the same key policies. Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker, and Gillibrand are in favor of Medicare-for-all and have staked out progressive positions on the issues of immigration, campaign finance reform, and criminal justice reform.

“The fact you have these major people showing up and speaking with the same voice” is telling as to where the party is at, said David Nir, the political director for the left-leaning blog Daily Kos.

The big question left for activists: Which prospective candidate really believes in what they’re saying? Multiple activists told Vox that while they’re pleased to see a race to the left shaping up in 2020, they’re really looking for authenticity.

“You look for that person who seems to talk the talk and walk the walk,” said DeJuana Thompson, the creator of Woke Vote. She added that a certain number of people will vote for a 2020 candidate based on their “gut standpoint,” like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were able to do in 2016.

“Trump made no political sense, but he made gut sense to people,” Thompson said.

Most of the top 2020 Democratic names are US senators, but activists feel that some are more entrenched in the political system than others. They see Warren, like Sanders, as largely outside the establishment.

“That was part of Bernie’s appeal,” said Justin Krebs, the director of campaigns for the national activist network “He’s saying what other people weren’t saying or were surprised to hear. Elizabeth Warren is someone who does that very well.”

Having already moved the notch of policy issues embraced by 2020 names to the left, progressives are excited at the prospect of having a large field of candidates to see who can really distinguish themselves on a whole host of issues — from immigration to health care to the environment and the economy.

“The 2020 measuring stick is not anybody but Trump,” Krebs said. “It’s, let’s have a race to the top. We get it, all of you are better than Trump; now be better than each other.”

Warren, Harris, and Booker go for a unifying message at Netroots

It’s clear that the progressive base doesn’t want to settle for moderate candidates, in 2018 or in 2020. This frustration was voiced at Netroots by Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist who is challenging New York’s Democratic incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo from the left.

“A lack of moderation was not the problem” in 2016, said Nixon during a speech Saturday. “We tried it their way, and we lost to a racist extremist. Republicans are going to call us socialists no matter what we do, so we might as well give them the real thing.”

But for all the left-wing fervor gripping the Democratic Party, Warren’s speech sounded like a blend of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 theme “Stronger Together,” combined with the progressive elements that make her appealing to the base. Warren didn’t spend her time criticizing the Democratic establishment like Nixon had done; she went after Republicans.

“The Republicans will continue to practice the politics of division. They will keep right on attacking anyone who dares to stand up to the rich and the powerful,” Warren said. “The pundits will say it’s impossible for us to build a coalition that cuts across issues and communities — that Democrats have to choose between being the party of the white working class and the party of Black Lives Matter. Nevertheless, we will persist.”

Booker and Harris carried a similar message of unity in their speeches. Booker focused on his nascent career as a community organizer and activist in Newark, the city he became the mayor of and still resides in as a US senator. Booker encouraged people in the audience to become engaged in activism and politics.

“So many people are sitting on the sidelines, so many people think democracy is a spectator sport,” Booker said. “We have got to restore the human connections that are necessary to cultivate not just love but engagement ... a more powerful activism.”

Harris carved out a contrast for herself by making a statement arguing that there isn’t a “post-racial” America like some hoped the election of former President Barack Obama would usher in.

“Let’s speak truth,” Harris said. “That if it wasn’t clear before Charlottesville, it is clear now — racism is real in this country, and we need to deal with that. Sexism is real in this country; let’s deal with it. Anti-Semitism, homophobia, transphobia are real in this country; let’s deal with it.”

Later in her speech, Harris called for Democrats to do more work to elect more women of color to office in 2018 and beyond.

“Black women have been putting in the work during elections,” she said. “We shouldn’t just be thanking women of color for electing progressive leaders, we should be electing women of color as those leaders.”

The Netroots crowd has a complex history with presidential hopefuls. Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley were both heckled by Black Lives Matter protesters at the 2015 convention in Phoenix. The protesters called on the men to address issues of race, including police brutality, in their campaigns. (Some activists at this year’s event wondered whether Warren could speak authentically to the struggles of voters of color.)

Some at Netroots found Harris’s candor on issues of race refreshing. At least one national activist said she was looking for more from the Massachusetts senator on that front.

“Sen. Harris hit it out of the park today,” said María Urbina, the political director for the national activist group Indivisible. Urbina added that she wanted to see Warren focus more on issues of race.

There’s a big question mark hovering over Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the socialist senator from Vermont who galvanized the progressive movement behind his 2016 presidential run, was absent from this year’s Netroots, instead flying to Michigan to stump for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed, who faces a primary on Tuesday.

Like Warren, Booker, and Harris, Sanders has been keeping relatively mum about his presidential prospects, but he’s still been crisscrossing the country in recent weeks to campaign for multiple progressive candidates. But speculation about his plans is hard to escape — as is the question of whether he and Warren will be competing for the same faction of supporters if they both run for president in 2020.

Some activists noted that Sanders’s army of supporters, still powerful in left-wing groups including Our Revolution and People for Bernie, may not move over to any other candidate if Sanders jumps in.

Sanders has inspired dozens of candidates to get into races in 2018, and the ideas that he brought to the 2016 campaign stage are already forming the platform of multiple 2020 hopefuls. His sway will matter in the presidential election; the question is what form it will take.

“My feeling is he has so much more power as a potential kingmaker outside of the process than a candidate inside the process,” said one Democratic activist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “He could potentially determine who the nominee is outside, but if he’s inside, he’s just another person onstage, even if he walks in the door with the biggest, most fired-up group.”

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