With Sen. Elizabeth Warren once again confronting controversy over her tenuous claims to Native American heritage, activists in early-voting states and national allies are nervously eyeing whether she can succeed in getting past an issue that has shadowed her campaign.
Many Democrats continue to defend the Massachusetts senator, believing the questions have been overblown or used against Warren unfairly. Yet with so many candidates in the Democratic field, some say she will have to show soon that she can shake it off, given voters’ intense focus on finding a candidate who can defeat President Trump.
“She needs to get everything out and hope that’s the end of it,” said Judy Reardon, a New Hampshire environmental activist, who is a former Democratic state legislator and top staffer to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and is generally complimentary of Warren.
The latest round of trouble comes at an important point for Warren, as she prepares for the official launch of her campaign with a swing through early primary states starting this weekend.
Since she announced on Dec. 31 that she was setting up an exploratory committee, Warren has settled into the top tier of Democratic hopefuls, and her aides designed the coming events to give her campaign a boost. Instead, she’s once more fending off questions on a topic she hoped to have put behind her.
Last month, Warren’s allies were pleased after her initial swing through Iowa, when she became the first major Democrat to open a presidential exploratory committee. Her speeches were filled beyond capacity with receptive activists, and the ancestry issue came up only once, when a voter asked whether she unwittingly played intro Trump’s hand by taking a DNA test that showed only trace Native American ancestry. The issue did not come up in interviews with activists who came to evaluate her prospects.
Warren believed she had settled as many questions as she could, having cooperated last fall with an extensive Boston Globe review that showed the claims had not factored into her hiring in a series of jobs as a law professor.
But any sense of relief was premature. Last week, after continued criticism from prominent Native Americans, Warren issued an apology for “not being more sensitive to the distinction” between family lore and tribal membership. Then, on Wednesday, as Warren prepared for her official campaign launch, the Washington Post published a 1986 Texas legal bar registration card in which she listed her race as “American Indian.”
A disclaimer on the card says the information on it would be used for statistical purposes only and would not be publicly disclosed, supporting Warren’s insistence that she did not use the claim for professional advancement. Nonetheless, it was the first document to surface in which Warren had made the claim in her own handwriting, which renewed the sense that the issue could linger, with old documents emerging at unexpected times.
Warren, in an uncomfortable scrum with reporters in the hallway of the Senate on Thursday, would not say directly whether more such documents might exist.
“All I know is during this time period, this is consistent with what I did because it was based on my understanding from my family’s stories,” she told reporters. “But family stories are not the same as tribal citizenship, and this is why I have apologized.”
The issue, at minimum, has distracted attention from the topics Warren wanted to talk about. On Thursday, for example, the Trump administration began watering down rules to protect the poorest consumers from high-interest payday lenders, a core issue for Warren for decades during her career as a bankruptcy professor and activist.
“If you’re in a campaign that is dealing with a problem, you want to move as quickly as you can away from it. Sometimes you are not in control of moving away from it,” said John Anzalone, a Democratic pollster who worked with the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and in other Democratic campaigns back to the 1980s.
Barney Frank, a former Massachusetts Democratic congressman who has long encouraged Warren’s presidential aspirations, said he believes she is handling the issue “the best she can,” but noted the large number of choices available for Democratic primary voters.
“The problem is there are a lot of very good candidates who are very close on the issues, so small differences get focused on,” he said.
Several party activists in early states who are most worried about the issue did not want to speak on the record about a fellow Democrat. But they all agreed the party’s voters are determined, even more than usual, to find a candidate who can win in the general election. Activists, while not ruling Warren out, are eager to see whether she can move past this, they said.
A poll of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina conducted for Firehouse Strategies found that voters in those early voting states prefer a candidate who could beat Trump to one who best represents their values. A national poll by Monmouth University found that 56% of registered Democrats prefer “a stronger candidate against Donald Trump,” even if they disagree with the candidate on “most issues.” Only 33% said they would accept a weaker candidate who more closely matched their views.
“The one takeaway when I talk to people, it’s, ‘I just want the person who can beat Donald Trump,’” said Sylvia Larsen, a former state Senate leader in New Hampshire who has hosted Warren at a house party and is planning to host other candidates, including, the coming weeks, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
“It’s better that she turn around and face the demon rather than run from it,” Larsen said of Warren. “The people that I hear the most flak from are people that would never support her anyway.”
Some activists said they believe Warren is simply the first candidate to face a tough issue and that it’s more important to see how she handles it.
“Elizabeth Warren made a mistake. If she can demonstrate in the near future how she’s learned from that, that her thinking has evolved, then I don’t think it will be a problem,” said Terie Norelli, a former New Hampshire House speaker who is hosting Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown on Friday but is uncommitted.
“If she can’t, it will continue to dog her.”
Still, even as Democrats continue to evaluate Warren, they are frustrated that Trump can attack potential rivals — he uses the slur “Pocahontas” against Warren — despite what they see as his own much bigger character and policy flaws. Many blame the media for what they see as disproportionate treatment.
“This is 2016 emails coverage all over again,” tweeted Brian Fallon, the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign.
The issue also intersects with long-standing concerns that female candidates are too quickly labeled as unlikeable or unelectable in a general election.
Adam Kerkvliet, chairman of the Lyon County Iowa Democrats, said that “being from the Midwest, someone saying they have Native American ancestry, that’s not uncommon.”
Opponents “might use the Native American thing as cover for their sexism, but I think that’s really what drives her electability issues,” he added.
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this report.