SALT LAKE CITY — Earlier this summer, Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren quietly held a fundraiser in an upscale Salt Lake City restaurant during what's been described as a presidential campaign-style swing through the West.
Already seen as a potential front-runner for the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nomination even though she has yet to declare she's running, Warren has raised nearly $50,000 from Utah through the end of June.
That total, from the Federal Election Commission, appears to include the proceeds from the June 22 fundraiser at Finca, a downtown restaurant that describes itself as offering Spanish-inspired fine dining.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who posed with Warren at the fundraiser after contributing $250, said her stop in reliably Republican Utah is a sure sign she's serious about a bid for the White House.
"She wants to raise her profile for that, wants to raise her credibility among Democrats, even in red states," King said. He said Warren made it clear her focus was "on advancing Democratic fortunes" in this year's midterm elections, not 2020.
When King attempted to encourage her to run for president, he said Warren told him, "I don't want to think about that until we do everything we can to get past this November election and get as many Democrats elected as we can."
A recent New York Times article about the 2020 race quoted Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski as saying Warren's message at the event was that Democrats need to come together and "show this year that change is what the people want."
Warren stopped in Utah on her way to Nevada, a key early voting state in the presidential primaries, where she rallied Democrats at their state convention in Reno as President Donald Trump did the same for the GOP in Las Vegas.
Utah, a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, did show considerable support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator who lost the party's nomination to Hillary Clinton.
Trump won the state in November 2016, but a Deseret News/KSL poll conducted shortly before that year's March presidential caucus votes found that Utahns preferred Sanders over the now president, 48 percent to 37 percent.
But Utah GOP Chairman Rob Anderson said he doesn't expect Warren's brief visit to have much impact in the state.
"It's way early for her to come out here and try to stir up support," Anderson said. "Utah is a red state. It's just a red state. I don't think people are swayed that easily. I don't think Democrats coming in are going to get traction."
He wasn't sure Utahns would see much of Trump between now and Election Day 2020, although the president did come to Salt Lake City last December to announce reductions in the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said he was surprised to hear that Warren held a fundraiser in Salt Lake City and agreed with King that was evidence she's likely to run.
"I don't think she's interested in winning the state realistically. I think what she is trying to do is build up a base of supporters," Burbank said. He said Utah's past backing of Sanders would be appealing to Warren.
Burbank said that unlike more liberal states like California, there isn't that much competition for Democratic donations in Utah, even though the state has a "fair amount of big money Democrats."17 comments on this story
Warren seems to be well aware of the opportunity that presents, he said, just as previous presidential contenders have been.
"It's not the first thing you would think of if you were running the Warren campaign, 'Oh, we need to go to Utah to raise money,'" Burbank said, noting what Warren collects for her Senate re-election campaign could be used for a presidential run.
"Clearly," he said, "there are a group of people here who are in that position of being able to host a fundraiser and have good attendance and have people show up, checks in hand."