CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren jumped into the 2020 presidential campaign Monday, offering a message of economic populism as she became the best-known Democratic candidate yet to enter what is expected to be a crowded race.
“America’s middle class is under attack,” the Massachusetts Democrat said in a four-minute, 30-second video emailed to supporters Monday. “How did we get here? Billionaires and big corporations decided they wanted more of the pie. And they enlisted politicians to cut them a bigger slice.”
The video is part biographical, showing her hardscrabble Oklahoma upbringing; part economics lesson, replete with charts illustrating how the middle class is losing economic ground; and part red meat for the Democratic base, with images of President Trump and others disliked by liberals: presidential aides Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller and former adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
It made no mention of a recent Warren stumble: her October decision to release results of a DNA test that said she probably had a distant Native American ancestor. The move had been meant to stifle Trump’s criticism of her but only engendered more mockery from him while also angering Democrats, particularly minorities who objected to her defining ethnicity via a test.
While the race for the Democratic nomination is only starting, even Warren’s supporters acknowledge that she has lost ground in the last few months, both by her own hand and because the November midterm elections redefined Democratic success with candidates who were in many cases a generation younger.
Still, the 69-year-old former law professor enters the race as a formidable candidate — a prodigious small-dollar fundraiser with a knack for creating the kind of viral moments that attract attention in a crowded field. In one such episode, she turned an insult from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — “nevertheless, she persisted” — into a liberal rallying cry.
She also spent the past year assisting candidates around the country, building a war room inside her Senate reelection offices to mentor, assist and raise money for candidates running for congressional or local offices, creating alliances in the process.
Warren’s opening salvo showed she plans to lean into her professorial roots and her persona as a fighter. That is consistent with Warren’s pitch as she has risen to national prominence by taking on bankers and large companies. But it also risks emphasizing anger at a time when Democrats are divided over whether they instead should seek out a more optimistic and unifying nominee.
“I’ve spent my career getting to the bottom of why America’s promise works for some families, but others who work just as hard slip through the cracks into disaster,” Warren said in the video. “What I’ve found is terrifying. These aren’t cracks that families are falling into, they’re traps.”
She closed the video standing in the kitchen of her Cambridge home: “If we organize together, if we fight together, if we persist together we can win. We can and we will.”
Warren is one of more than a half-dozen senators expected to run for president, including Democrats Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (Minn) and Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), as well as independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who shares Warren’s populist underpinnings.
The timing of Warren’s announcement — on New Year’s Eve, for many the close of the holiday break — was unusual. But it allowed Warren at least some time to dominate the race, since two lesser-known politicians, Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, are the only candidates to officially declare their interest so far.
On Saturday, in a major hint she was preparing her presidential bid, Warren dropped the Massachusetts reference from her campaign Twitter handle, changing it from @elizabethforma to a more nationalized @ewarren.
Warren is expected to base her campaign headquarters in Boston, with an operation likely to be led by her longtime aide Dan Geldon.
Warren won her Senate seat in 2012, defeating incumbent Sen. Scott Brown to reclaim the seat long held by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and become the first female senator from Massachusetts. She easily won reelection in November.
But recent events have illustrated some of her potential weaknesses. In a liberal state, Gov. Charlie Baker (R) got more votes than she did in November, and a recent survey in Massachusetts had her trailing former vice president Joe Biden and Sanders in a hypothetical 2020 matchup. A recent poll of likely caucusgoers in Iowa had her in fourth place at 8 percent, trailing Biden, Sanders and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.).
“Warren missed her moment in 2016, and there’s reason to be skeptical of her prospective candidacy in 2020,” the Boston Globe wrote in a scathing editorial in December. “While Warren is an effective and impactful senator with an important voice nationally, she has become a divisive figure. A unifying voice is what the country needs now after the polarizing politics of Donald Trump.”
Warren has often described spending her Oklahoma upbringing “on the ragged edge of the middle class.” She and her three older brothers went through economic hardships, with her father’s heart attack when she was 12 resulting in medical bills that required her mother to work at Sears and Warren to wait tables at age 13.
She was married at 19, pregnant at 21 and a Rutgers School of Law graduate by 26.
Those roots are likely to form the basis of her attempt to connect with average voters, but they have already complicated her presidential run. It was her upbringing, and family lore, that caused her to say for several years that she was Native American — a claim that has come under relentless attack from Republican opponents, prompting the DNA test that triggered a Democratic backlash.
Warren considered running for president in 2016 but ultimately decided against it. She was also among those considered for Hillary Clinton’s running mate.
Warren has spent most of her adult life in academia, doing groundbreaking research on consumer bankruptcy.
As a professor, she provided the intellectual basis for a consumer protection watchdog, which under legislation passed in 2010 became the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. President Barack Obama considered appointing her to run the new bureau but then passed on her. Warren ran for the Senate instead.
She has used her perch on the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs to grill Wall Street executives and try to derail nominees who don’t fit her populist philosophies. In 2016, she gained a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, an attempt to burnish her foreign policy credentials.
Until she was in her 40s, Warren was a registered Republican.
“I was a Republican because I thought that those were the people who best supported markets. I think that is not true anymore,” Warren told the Daily Beast in 2011. “I was a Republican at a time when I felt like there was a problem that the markets were under a lot more strain. It worried me whether or not the government played too activist a role.”
Warren did not say what she thought Democrats stood for at the time, but she now hopes to define the party in 2020.