Sen. Elizabeth Warren is preparing to formally launch her presidential campaign in Massachusetts on Saturday amid a fresh round of questions over whether she can move beyond a political problem that’s bedeviled her since her first Senate contest in 2012: Her decision in the 1980s and 1990s to claim to be Native American.
Allies hope the launch, set in the mill town of Lawrence, the site of a textile strike in the early 20th century, will allow Warren (D-Mass.) to reset the conversation about her candidacy and refocus it on her message of bolstering the middle class.
“The problem is, they haven’t put a bow on” the ancestry issue, said Symone D. Sanders, a Democratic strategist who is unaligned. “This is something, if not put to bed, it will take on a life of its own.”
The reemergence of the issue — including Warren’s recent apologies and the disclosure of a 1986 document in which Warren claims to be “American Indian” — comes at an awkward time for the senator, ensuring that her announcement Saturday will be closely scrutinized for whether she confronts the matter, and how.
Warren’s campaign hoped questions over her identity claims would be largely answered by now. Aides have tried for nearly a year to put those concerns behind her so she could use this point in the campaign, when she is reintroducing herself to voters, to tout populist policies aimed at reducing the political power of corporations and special interests.
Warren has stuck to a strategy of responding only briefly to such questions, saying a Native American background was part of her family lore and that she did not realize that tribes control membership. A campaign official said she has no plans to change that approach.
But some Democrats outside her immediate circle say Warren needs to find a more heartfelt and resonant way to explain her decision to call herself Native American on various occasions during the 1980s and 1990s. Otherwise, they warn, the questions will continue to linger.
Sanders pointed to Warren’s decision in October to release a DNA test showing that she had a distant Native American ancestor. Warren’s camp hoped that would help end the controversy, “but it aggressively exacerbated the situation,” Sanders said. “It wasn’t a strategy.”
The nascent Democratic presidential field is at a pivotal moment as candidates decide whether to run, messages emerge and fade and sought-after strategists choose which camp to join. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) is expected to declare her candidacy on Sunday, and decisions are expected soon from other political figures including former vice president Joe Biden and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke.
As Warren plotted her own path through that thicket this week, the issue of her claims arose anew when The Washington Post published a copy of Warren’s bar registration card for the state of Texas in 1986. It showed that she had neatly printed “American Indian” in the line provided for race. It was the first document to emerge showing Warren making the claim in her own writing.
That came just days after Warren privately told the head of the Cherokee Nation she was sorry for the “confusion caused” by her claims and DNA test. She repeated that apology to The Post and other media outlets.
“I am not a tribal citizen,” Warren said when asked why she claimed to be Native American. “Tribes, and only tribes, determine citizenship.” She added that she had been told of a Native American ancestor through stories from her brothers and parents while growing up in Oklahoma.
Warren’s supporters say voters care far more about her policy positions, reputation as a fighter and her ability to take on President Trump. Campaign staffers are heartened that questions about her claims of Native American identity have come up only rarely during her trips to early primary states, where she has regularly taken questions from the public and the media.
“She’s going to run a campaign on the issues where she has decades of success under her belt,” said Stephanie Taylor, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “At the end of the day, that’s what matters. People want someone who can beat Trump.”
Still, Warren now faces the prospect of announcing her candidacy the day after a hard-hitting editorial in the her hometown paper, the Boston Globe, criticized her over the issue. “If Warren can’t stop the slow bleed of bad news now, the presidential candidacy she is expected to launch in Lawrence on Saturday is going to go nowhere fast,” the editorial said.
Some who have watched Warren for years say her campaign has not adapted to the unique dynamics of a presidential run.
“This is a political issue now; it was always a personal issue,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist based in Massachusetts who criticized Warren in 2012 for failing to adequately address the matter. “The more she talks about it in personal terms, the less of a political issue it will be.”
Sanders said one option for Warren is a lengthy televised interview to more fully explain her thoughts and feelings behind the decision to assert a Native American identity. “I think people need to see her on camera,” Sanders said. “For young people, it’s like, ‘What? How is this even possible?’ ”
Some Warren confidants agree that would be a more effective pitch. “She feels this is very personal — it’s about her family,” said Phil Johnston, a longtime Massachusetts political player and Warren ally. “She believed what her family told her. It’s important for her to react to it as a family issue.”
Still, Johnston said he is not overly concerned. He noted that there is plenty of time for the issue to recede again — and in that time, her rivals could confront their own controversies. “The other candidates haven’t had to deal with it yet, but they will,” Johnston said.
After her announcement Saturday in Massachusetts, Warren will visit New Hampshire to meet with supporters in Dover. Warren’s husband, their children and her husband’s family will be at the event in Lawrence.
Her three brothers, who generally have not appeared at their sister’s political events, do not plan to attend the presidential launch. Warren highlighted them in a biographical video she sent out when she released her DNA test, and she frequently refers to them when questions arise about her identity, saying they, along with her parents, told her stories about the family’s ancestry.
Over the weekend, Warren will fly via a small charter plane to Iowa, where she plans to hold a rally in Iowa City and meet with supporters and voters at two other stops.
So far, other Democratic presidential hopefuls are holding their fire. “Senator Warren has made a statement. I hear what she said, and I take her at her word,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said last week.
“That’s got to be for the voters to decide,” said former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro. “I’m going to focus on my own campaign and my own vision for the country’s future.”
Some Democratic operatives blame reporters for focusing on the issue. “This is 2016 emails coverage all over again,” tweeted Brian Fallon, the former spokesman for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, referring to what many Democrats saw as overwrought press coverage of her email arrangement when she was secretary of state.
But the other campaigns may not play nice forever. Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist in South Carolina, an early primary state, said of Warren: “She may see this in a mail piece in the Democratic primary.”