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Elizabeth Warren builds expansive Democratic campaign effort ahead of likely 2020 bid

At a town hall in Holyoke, Mass., on Sept. 29, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she would "take a hard look at running for president," after the midterms. (Video: Elizabeth Warren)

BOSTON — During the past six months, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has built a shadow war room designed to elect Democrats across the country in the midterm elections, overtaking some of the traditional duties of Democratic Party campaign committees and further positioning herself for an all-but-certain 2020 presidential bid.

Her effort, which goes far beyond the fundraising and endorsement speeches in which prospective presidential candidates typically engage, has encompassed work in all 50 states and close coordination with more than 150 campaigns. The result is a wide-ranging network that includes those running for state treasurer in Nevada, state legislature in Iowa and congressional offices across the country.

It is unmistakably aimed at some of the early-primary states that Warren would need to contest in a presidential campaign. She has deployed staffers to all four early primary states — two to New Hampshire and one each to Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada — as well as to traditional powerhouses such as Ohio, Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin.

“I feel the urgency of the moment nationally,” Warren said in an interview. “It’s two parts: It’s holding Donald Trump accountable for what he does. It’s also trying to push this country toward working better for hard-working families.”

The Warren effort, while beneficial to a presidential campaign she said she will “take a hard look” at after the midterms, also signals how decentralized the national Democratic Party has become as most of the energy is being generated by individuals who are building their own operations.

On the fundraising front alone, scores of Democrats have raised more than $1 million each in pursuit of House seats this year; in Texas, Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke pulled in more than $38 million in the most recent fundraising quarter.

Warren is still helping the official campaign committees — donating and raising money for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, for example — but much of her work is independent of them and appears aimed at restocking a Democratic bench that has become woefully thin in recent years.

Warren, who has built a prodigious fundraising network for her Senate campaign, also has raised or donated $7.6 million for other candidates and committees this cycle. On Monday, one of her aides said, she plans to donate an additional $460,000, which appears to place her ahead of most of her potential 2020 rivals except for Michael Bloomberg, who is spending $100 million of his own money on the midterms.

“I speak a lot to candidates who are running this year,” said David Axelrod, a top political adviser to former president Barack Obama. “She’s the first call they get after a primary. It’s not just the winners she’s calling, she’s calling the losers, too. . . . The scale is pretty impressive.”

“This is how you go about building relationships and acquiring chits for a future project. It’s very smart,” he added. “If you were advising someone who had the resources of someone who was going to run for president, this is what you would do.”

Warren’s midterm operation is housed in a back office of her Senate reelection headquarters here. Every day, about a half-dozen staffers report to work, picking at salads and pecking away on laptops, sending messages to the campaigns across the country to which they are assigned. Whiteboards on the wall list the various races they are tracking, a map shows the places Warren has visited or where staffers are based, and there’s a list of candidates Warren needs to follow up with personally.

The operation — which internally is called the Democratic Outreach Team, or DOT — began in early 2018 when Warren’s staff started researching individual races in all 50 states, examining candidates and evaluating polling, fundraising and on-the-ground dynamics.

“We know every single district,” a Warren aide involved in the effort said. “We’ve researched every district. We’re granularly paying attention to every place on the map.”

Warren deliberately stayed out of almost every Democratic primary. But shortly after a winner was declared, Warren placed a congratulatory call — something she did for 172 candidates, by her staff’s tally — and offered campaign assistance. Someone from her staff was then assigned to the candidate to provide help or solicit requests.

After Nevada’s primary in June, Warren was on the phone with Zach Conine, who is running for state treasurer. “She was the only elected official outside of the state of Nevada who called,” he said.

When Deidre DeJear, who is running for secretary of state in Iowa, came to Washington a few weeks ago, Warren’s staff made sure they had time to meet. “She was super encouraging, and said, ‘Don’t let up,’ ” DeJear said. “I said, ‘Yes ma’am.’ ”

In June, when Liuba Grechen Shirley won her House primary in New York, Warren was among the first to call.

About once a week since then, Warren’s team has been in touch with Shirley’s campaign manager, Anna Brichacek. They share policy memos, craft fundraising emails and discuss ways to amplify their social media messages. When one of Shirley’s field directors was hospitalized, Warren called to wish her well.

“A lot of people are being helpful,” said Shirley, who is running against Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) in a district that most have expected to remain in Republicans’ hands. “But no one has been more helpful than Elizabeth Warren.”

She said Warren is helping fill a void and able to energize the wave of first-time candidates running this year.

“The Republicans are really good at building a bench,” Shirley said. “This is something the Democratic Party hasn’t done a great job of. I really appreciate that she is taking the time to build a bench.”

Warren insists she is not ignoring her race in Massachusetts, in which she is the runaway favorite. She did her 37th town hall on Saturday and is slated for three debates with her Republican opponent, Geoff Diehl.

It is largely because she is on such firm political territory that she can look elsewhere. Warren insists that her efforts now are not about laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign and that she’d be doing the same thing regardless of any national plans.

“This is about the urgency of now — of the importance of the midterms. And the long arc here is about investing in democracy, which stretches way beyond 2020,” she said.

“I said I’d take a hard look after the election,” she said of a presidential race. “But not now. That’s not what this is about.”

The 2020 contest, though, is expected to begin in earnest almost immediately after the midterms. With a fluid Democratic race that has potential candidates numbering in the dozens, candidates are doing anything they can to gain an advantage.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has raised more than $7 million for other candidates and traveled to 21 states. Former vice president Joe Biden has traveled or raised money for 24 candidates and offered endorsements to an additional 74 candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, is launching a nine-state tour later this week.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California has raised or contributed more than $6.5 million and has traveled to 10 states this year to campaign with Democratic candidates and has plans for more. Like Warren, she has been calling candidates and offering assistance. One of her staffers left to work for Abby Finkenauer, a congressional candidate in Iowa.

What seems to set Warren apart is the breadth of the operation.

Warren’s team has offered to send out emails to her list (180 times), given contributions (167 times) or provided policy documents (63 times). She also has met with candidates one-on-one (61 times) and done videos (36 times) and fundraisers (41 times).

Most of those she has helped are running for Congress, but she’s also met with candidates in key 2020 states — such as Mark Smith, running for reelection to the Iowa House, and Catherine Byrne, who is running for controller in Nevada.

“The energizing part of the new 2018 candidates is they’re running hard and they’re running for something,” Warren said. “And they’re not apologizing to anybody for it.”

Then she left to record her latest batch of videos to be sent across the country for get-out-the-vote operations in dozens of races.