And a month before that in Iowa, Johnson County Board of Supervisors Vice Chair Rod Sullivan declared that “nobody has more big ideas” than the Massachusetts senator.
Besides their enthusiastic backing of Warren, they all have one thing in common: Each provided key early support to Warren’s current liberal rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in his 2016 bid for the White House.
Grijalva was Sanders’s first congressional endorser in 2015, while Abramson was a Sanders delegate to the Democratic convention and Sullivan was among his early backers in Iowa. Now all of them, and others in the same position, are signaling to their followers and allies that Warren is the better pick, quietly providing her an extensive network to build support in early states.
Among the guests at Abramson’s party were Mike and Jessica Smith, who backed Sanders last time. “She’s almost the new Bernie for us,” Jessica Smith said. “Bernie is a bit on the older side.” She added, “I still like Bernie. I still like his ideas, but she’s been able to add to that.”
This shift comes as Warren is publicly projecting a friendly attitude toward the Vermont senator — backing him up on the debate stage, refusing to criticize him when reporters ask, restraining her staffers from posting tweets needling him.
That avoids alienating Sanders voters whom she may need later. But strategists for both candidates say there’s room for only one of them to survive far beyond the early primaries, making for a below-the-surface battle, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, dismissed the significance of the defections, saying Sanders and Warren just have a different approach toward the campaign. Sanders, he said, is trying to build a movement from the ground up and is less interested in how local Democratic leaders evaluate his candidacy.
“It’s always been for him a feeling that the system itself is dysfunctional and corrupt and needs to change, and that, I think, infuses how he thinks about courting people who operate within the system,” Shakir said.
He added that he means “no disrespect” to local leaders supporting Warren or other candidates. Sanders has sat down with several Democratic members of Congress recently, he noted, to update them on his campaign and approach.
Still, “you have a different kind of candidate and a different kind of campaign in Bernie Sanders,” Shakir said. “You can say, ‘Well, it’s not the way I would do it.’ But it’s certainly the way he would do it.”
The Sanders campaign plans to roll out a list of “dozens and dozens” of “activist endorsements” in coming weeks.
“Rather than party insiders, the campaign views the endorsement of rank-and-file workers, community organizers and issue advocates as critical to its campaign,” said a Sanders campaign aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak about the program before it’s launched.
Laura Hickey, 46, said she was approached by Sanders’s campaign a few days ago to see if she would be an endorser. “He’s fighting for people like me,” she said. “It was a no-brainer to endorse him.”
She acknowledged that she’s an unusual pick. “Am I Cardi B? I’m no Cardi B,” said Hickey, a stay-at-home mother living in Clarinda, Iowa, referring to the rapper. “Some people obviously have a wider sphere of influence than I have. But as a mom, I have three very important followers,” she said, meaning her three boys.
Sanders’s campaign has also released a list of “anti-endorsements,” prominent figures like JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon and former Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein, whose opposition he touts as a validation of his revolutionary message.
“As we fight for an agenda that guarantees basic human rights for all Americans, we will be opposed by the most powerful forces in America,” the Sanders campaign wrote when it posted the list.
Warren’s aides declined to discuss their endorsement strategy, but several people close to the campaign said she is eager to use local networks to get her message in front of voters, many of whom are not as familiar with her as with Sanders.
But her success with former Sanders devotees also suggests that some liberal activists now see Warren as a better bet than Sanders. And Warren has been carefully wooing Sanders’s key endorsers, often calling them personally.
This approach has helped recruit people like Abramson, who hosted a house party at his Bow, N.H., home four years ago for Sanders. Last week he invited friends and neighbors, along with people contacted by the Warren campaign, to throw his support behind the Massachusetts senator.
“I respect and admire Sanders — I just don’t feel like it’s his time,” Abramson said as he watched supporters line up in his lush backyard to take photos with Warren, adding that “2020 is not 2016. Because it’s a different time we need a different person.”
Warren’s staff is not overtly drawing attention to the fact many of her endorsements are officials who used to back Sanders. They’re not listed as former Sanders supporters on news releases, and they typically don’t mention Sanders when they announce their support for Warren.
But some close to Sanders have noticed the switches and fear that Sanders is not doing enough to court the on-the-ground support that allowed him to essentially fight Clinton to a draw in Iowa in 2016 and drub her in New Hampshire.
The polling average compiled by the RealClearPolitics website has the two candidates statistically tied in Iowa and gives Warren as slight edge in New Hampshire, though both trail former vice president Joe Biden. In June Warren bested Sanders in a straw poll of about 250 New Hampshire liberal activists, gaining support from 35 percent while Sanders was backed by 24 percent.
Several of the Sanders-to-Warren switchers said they felt that the Massachusetts senator does a better job of articulating the issues that Sanders put forward last time.
Grijalva, when introducing Warren to a crowd of about 3,500 people in Tempe on Thursday, focused on her agenda. “She’s got a vision that isn’t so narrow that it’s crafted just to survive. It is crafted to lead,” he said.
Grijalva is a former co-chair of the House Congressional Progressive Caucus, and his views carries weight with some in the liberal community. He was also the first member of Congress to back Sanders’s insurgent candidacy in October 2015, an endorsement that was unveiled days before the first primary debate.
This time, Grijalva’s endorsement was disclosed at a similarly symbolic moment, hours before Warren and Sanders faced off for the first time on a debate stage.
Grijalva in the last election didn’t stick with Sanders to the end. In June 2016, after campaigning around the country with Sanders, he changed his allegiance to Clinton while Sanders was still in the race, though by that point it was mathematically impossible for Sanders to win the nomination.
Another factor cited by several Democrats for changing their allegiance is Sanders’s demeanor, which they said they find gruff and off-putting.
Wayne Burton, a New Hampshire Democratic official who endorsed Sanders four years ago and is now backing Warren, recalled being with Sanders ahead of a veterans’ forum during the last primary. Sanders was in a foul mood, he said, seemingly because a campaign staffer had accidentally brought him to the wrong door.
“That was a small item, but he came in crabby, nasty, and he was about to face this crowd of several hundred people, mostly veterans,” recalled Burton, who is a member of the Durham, N.H., town council. “And I was saying, ‘Holy crap, I hope he calms down before he gets to the microphone.’”
By contrast, he’s known Warren for years and hasn’t ever seen her snap. “If you’re a leader, being liked is not a bad thing,” he said.