Meet the Elizabeth Warren Democrats

New crop of Democrats emerging in populist mold of the Massachusetts senator.

February 18, 2014, 10:59 AM
PHOTO: Rick Weiland is pictured on Feb. 4, 2014, in Sioux Falls, S.D. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is pictured on Jan. 6, 2014 in Boston, Mass. Daylin Leach is pictured on Apr. 23, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Rick Weiland is pictured on Feb. 4, 2014, in Sioux Falls, S.D. Sen. Elizabeth Warren is pictured on Jan. 6, 2014 in Boston, Mass. Daylin Leach is pictured on Apr. 23, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Dirk Lammers/AP | David L. Ryan, Douglas Graham/Getty Images

Feb. 18, 2014— -- What happens when you mix FDR-style populism with a Paul Krugman-esqe love of wonky policy? You get the so-called “Warren wing” Democratic candidates.

They are an eclectic mix of upstarts, largely political outsiders, who are running with freshman Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s cause -- whether she likes it or not.

But what exactly does a Warren wing Democrat want?

“It's time that Washington was more responsive to communities' concerns,” said Shenna Bellows, dubbed a Warren wing candidate for Senate in Maine. “It's important to restore our constitutional freedom.”

If that sounds familiar, that’s because it is -- at least on the surface -- strikingly similar to the tone of another insurgent political movement of recent years: the tea party.

Warren wing candidates are by no means tea party-like in their aims or even in their methods. They are firmly in favor of government and there is little desire to, for example, oust sitting Democrats in a quest for ideological purity.

But both parties are now figuring out how to respond to the clamoring of movements within their parties that demand that they address the same concern: Americans are sick of Washington and no longer believe lawmakers are working with their best interests in mind.

“Washington is ossified and procrustean -- old and rigid,” said Daylin Leach, a Pennsylvania state senator who is competing in a crowded Democratic primary to represent the 13th Congressional District. “I do think we have lost the ability to solve big problems.”

“What we do need is fresh ideas and people with a fresh approach,” he added. “I’d like to think that if I’m in Washington in 30 years I’ll still be trying to come up with the solutions for the problems that we have.”

This progressive, populist force within the Democratic Party is notably diverse. Some are younger, political novices, others are closer to the average age of elected lawmakers in Washington right now.

They all agree that economic populism is the core of their mission: raising the minimum wage, holding Wall Street and other special interests accountable, making education -- particularly higher education -- more affordable and attainable. But otherwise, name the issues and you can probably find a Warren wing candidate who will put it near the top of their list of priorities.

Bellows, former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has championed reining in the National Security Agency's surveillance regime on the campaign trail. Her focus on that issue has netted her new libertarian supporters to add to her base of progressive supporters. Earlier this year, she surprised the political establishment by out-raising incumbent Republican Sen. Susan Collins in the last quarter of 2013.

Leach, on the other hand, has championed legalizing recreational and medicinal marijuana in Pennsylvania, and has had a long history of pushing progressive ideas in the state Senate.

Expanding Medicare and Social Security is at the top of the list for Lee Rogers, a California doctor running in the 25th Congressional District.

And Rick Weiland, who is running for the Senate in South Dakota, asserts that special interests dominating money in politics has been the source of most if not all of the political ills that America currently faces.

These aren’t exactly the most radical of ideas. It's likely that Democrats in Congress right now can be found to back just about everything the Warren candidates are championing.

The difference, each of the candidates say, is not only in what Warren champions, but how she does it.

“It's really that what she’s speaking is not message-tested, it comes truly from the heart,” said Bellows, who has been dubbed by the Progressive Campaign Change Committee as the "Elizabeth Warren of Civil Liberties." "She’s not trying to moderate her positions based on what she thinks people will or will not be ready for."

As a freshman Senator, Warren has picked up fervent supporters in her mission to go after Wall Street banks or push for student loan interest rates that are at least on par with those given to big financial institutions, and most recently, transform the U.S. Postal Service into a bank for the under-served.

A video of Warren confronting bank regulators during a congressional hearing last year has gone viral, perhaps because it captures exactly what her supporters find so effective about her.

“Tell me a little bit about the last few times you’ve taken the biggest financial institutions on Wall Street all the way to a trial,” Warren asks in a manner that could almost be mistaken for a generous invitation. The regulators were stumped. “Anybody?” Warren asks after a few seconds of silence.

Warren isn’t big on the filibuster, or the blustery speeches. The success of her no-frills approach is notable in part because it is a dramatic departure from the grandeur and poetry that marked President Barack Obama’s rise in Democratic politics.

“The great thing about Elizabeth Warren -- it's not a knock on Barack Obama -- but when they say campaign in poetry and govern in prose, I think the genius that Elizabeth Warren has is that she campaigned in prose,” Leach said. “She doesn’t give great speeches, she doesn’t talk about the eagle soaring into the sky.”

“What attracts me to her is she has really great specific cool ideas that are very in the weeds, very wonky,” he added.

The Progressive Campaign Change Committee, which has a long history of supporting Democrats left of center, has partnered with more than a dozen of these candidates, calling them part of the Warren wing.

But Warren has been largely mum on all of this chatter, even shooting down speculation that she may tap into her following to mount a bid for the presidency in 2016.

Warren's office did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Nevertheless, she is the model on which progressive Democrats see a path to victory. And it suggests that traditional progressive policy can transcend partisan boxes (appealing to libertarian and even some Republicans) if they’re presented in a different package -- a less politically seasoned, more populist and more defiant package.

“That’s why you see the PCCC supporting candidates who are not involved in politics, who are younger, who are idealistic,” Rogers said. “This is the bold part of the Elizabeth Warren wing.”

“We’re going to stand up and say no. We’re not going to take it," Rogers said.

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