DURHAM, N.H.— It didn’t really matter that Cory Booker was preaching to the least religious state in the country. Or that he was a vegan in a crowd sharing pepperoni pizzas. Or even that he was a New York Yankees fan.
The Democratic senator from New Jersey, who has popped up across the country to help the party ahead of next week's midterm elections, was in New Hampshire for one reason only: “I’m literally so obsessed with nine days from now,” he said Sunday in an interview here in downtown Durham.
Still, speaking in the same college town where then-candidate Barack Obama once filled a large auditorium, Booker’s event at the University of New Hampshire could have flopped by comparison. He spoke in the student union and not a stadium. He didn’t trash President Trump, who remains deeply unpopular among Democrats. He didn’t even wear plaid, the state's unofficial uniform.
But the two standing ovations during his speech—imploring a crowd of nearly 200 people to mobilize—indicated success.
“We are in a moral moment in America,” he said, eschewing the lectern to walk up to the crowd as he spoke for nearly 30 minutes. “We have been defined in this country not by what has happened to us but by how we respond.”
The flight from Newark, New Jersey is just over an hour and his presidential campaign consideration is well known, but this was Booker’s first trip to New Hampshire in nearly two years. It was one he knew would be accompanied by national speculation. But aside from the 2020 chatter, the visit illustrated his status as a super-charged surrogate—this time at the final stop in the quartet of early-voting states he’s visited this month.
“The last month or so, the states I’ve gone to have been gifts to me,” he said, careful not to single out any of the first markers of primary season: Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada.
And yet, he almost didn’t make it here before the midterms. The New Hampshire Young Democrats, whose event Booker headlined, had been angling for a visit for over a year. But after taking the plunge to visit Iowa this month ahead of other high-profile Democrats, traveling to the second-in-line state was a natural next step.
New Hampshire is a “very wonderful, democratically spirited state,” he said with a big grin in a parking lot on campus.
Booker was officially stumping for Molly Kelly, who’s challenging Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, and Chris Pappas, the 1st District nominee. In the same day, he also traveled to Portsmouth and Dartmouth College in Hanover to meet with activists.
“He inspired and motivated many voters,” said Ray Buckley, the longtime chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “He has a great future whether he decides to run now or sometime in the future.”
It’s hard to talk about Democrats coming to New Hampshire without the presidential subtext. And it’s hard to find Democrats to talk about Booker without the adjectives that go hand in hand with it.
As they do here, state party chairs, local officials, and activists in the three other states agreed that the 49-year-old former mayor’s “energy” and focus on “positive” messaging, instead of Trump, has distinguished him as a top Democratic speaker.
“He has a very different approach than a lot of Dems do in not really taking on Trump directly,” an adviser close to Booker said.
His presence was long awaited in Iowa too.
“He needed to give a Barack Obama at Jefferson-Jackson level speech and he did just that,” Polk County Democratic Chairman Sean Bagniewski said of his first trip to Des Moines this season, where he was swarmed with selfie requests after speaking to a crowd five times the size of his gathering in New Hampshire.
“He was able to provide a dose of energy when we needed it,” Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman, added. “People are still talking about his trip.”
Booker has traveled to just less than half the country this cycle to help down-ballot candidates. On Thursday, he’ll return to Indiana for Sen. Joe Donnelly and head to North Dakota on Friday to help Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, capping off visits to 24 states, according to a source familiar with the plans. He’s also raised more than $7 million for Senate, House, and state candidates and Democratic parties.
Other prospective presidential candidates have also avoided Iowa and New Hampshire until recently. But Booker’s presence in both places, as well as stumping in South Carolina and making multiple trips to Nevada, where his mom lives, could pay off later, according to insiders in all four.
Three of Booker’s Senate colleagues, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren—who have also made tangible moves to launch presidential bids—have yet to individually go to all four early voting states. Bernie Sanders has been to all four, but has already been tested nationally while competing in 2016.
Harris has traveled to Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada after Booker, but has not yet been to New Hampshire. Gillibrand visited New Hampshire twice, but has not been to Iowa, South Carolina, or Nevada. Warren has been to Nevada but has stayed away from New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina so far.
“He has been a loud voice on the choir singing the Democratic hymns for some time now,” said Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina. After his visit, “there were a number of people who were ready to sign him up for president.”
Seawright pointed to the former star football recruit’s ability to “block and tackle”—that is, blocking Republican rhetoric and tackling issues important to southern voters. “This is not his first rodeo,” he said.
Jaime Harrison, the Democratic National Committee’s associate chairman who formerly led the state party in South Carolina, said that “when Cory is in a room, he helps bring a tremendous amount of positive energy.” He referenced the senator’s appearance at the Orangeburg County Democratic Party’s candidate cookoff, which Harrison described as one of the best GOTV efforts in the state.
Meanwhile, in Nevada, a Democratic insider who’s coordinated campaign efforts with Booker this year said he has a natural connection to policy issues that voters in the West care about, like marijuana legalization, which is already on the books in the state.
“It is helpful to have someone like Booker come to speak about criminal justice reform specifically,” the insider said. “He reaches a wide swath of folks.”
Booker was in the West’s first caucus state for the second time last week to help Rep. Jacky Rosen, who is challenging Sen. Dean Heller. While in Las Vegas he also stumped for former Rep. Steven Horsford, who’s running to win his old seat; governor nominee Steve Sisolak; and state Sen. Aaron Ford, who’s running for attorney general.
But back in New Hampshire, under a sky as gray as its signature stone, he swore he hadn’t given any of that 2020 primary talk “intellectual energy.”
“The energy in all four states,” he started, before pausing, “as they have been in other states, is just incredible.”