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In Iowa, Sen. Elizabeth Warren tells a voter why she took that DNA test

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), speaks during an organizing event for her presidential campaign  in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 5, 2018.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), speaks during an organizing event for her presidential campaign in Sioux City, Iowa, on Jan. 5, 2018. (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

SIOUX CITY, Iowa — The first question on the first full day of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Iowa presidential campaign swing was the one her political opponents craved. It came not from a reporter, or a heckler, but from an attendee among those packed into Sioux City’s Orpheum Theatre on Saturday who, like everyone else, had gotten a ticket that allowed her to ask the senator anything.

“Why did you undergo the DNA testing and give Donald more fodder to be a bully?” she asked.

There was a sound of muttering from the audience of 575 voters, and Warren let out a sigh. “Yeah, well,” she said. “I’m glad you asked that question. I genuinely am. I’m glad for us to have a chance to talk about it.”

The controversy surrounding Warren’s past claim of Native American ancestry, which first emerged during her 2012 campaign for Senate, has followed her despite two statewide election wins, a series of sometimes skeptical interviews, and a highly produced October 2018 video in which she released the results of a DNA test.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Jan. 4 held her first campaign event in Iowa since launching her exploratory committee for the 2020 presidential race. (Video: Reuters)

Warren’s campaign team produced the video after supporters and critics, one of whom had tried to conduct a test by sending some of Warren’s saliva to a DNA company, had asked how she could ever put the issue to bed.

“I recognize that it is unfair that you have to deal with this ‘Pocahontas’ allegation,” said Jon Lovett, a co-host of the popular liberal podcast “Pod Save America,” in a March interview with Warren. “Why not [get] some sort of a test, get some sort of a way to dispense with it once and for all, even if it’s conceding in this one instance to Trump’s bullying?”

The president, who appropriated the “Pocahontas” nickname for Warren from conservative Boston media, continued mocking her after the test. But the senator’s visit to Iowa so far demonstrated both how she had navigated around her political problem and how a media ecosystem often shaped by the president could readily return to it.

On the stump, Warren boiled down her answer on the controversy itself to 55 seconds.

“I am not a person of color; I am not a citizen of a tribe,” she said. “Tribal citizenship is very different from ancestry. Tribes, and only tribes, determine tribal citizenship, and I respect that difference. I grew up in Oklahoma, and like a lot of folks in Oklahoma, we heard stories about our ancestry. When I first ran for public office, Republicans homed in on this part of my history, and thought they could make a lot of hay out of it. A lot of racial slurs, and a lot of ugly stuff. And so my decision was: I’m just gonna put it all out there. Took a while, but just put it all out there.”

Warren, who has not otherwise mentioned the president by name on this trip, added that she could “not stop Donald Trump from what he’s gonna do,” including “hurling racial insults.”

“Yes, you can!” shouted Glenda Verhoeven, a 63-year old farmer in the audience. Afterward, Verhoeven explained that she thought Trump had revealed just how nervous Warren made him: “She already knows the enemy, and he knows her.”

The ancestry question was absent from Warren’s Friday-night town hall at a packed venue in Council Bluffs, and from a policy-heavy roundtable in Storm Lake on Saturday.

While Massachusetts Republicans had mocked Warren outside her events — one candidate followed her last year in a bus, decorated by a photo illustration of Warren in native headdress — there were no antics or operatives outside this weekend’s first Iowa events.

But the DNA answer was quickly sent to reporters by America Rising, a Republican opposition research group that has spent years tracking and researching Warren. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who represents Sioux City and narrowly won reelection amid controversy over his praise for white-nationalist politicians, responded to Warren hours later with a tweet pointing out that she would be traveling through “Pocahontas, Sac & Cherokee Counties.”

Earlier in the day, asked whether she had any particular message for King, Warren had opted not to attack him.

“This is what America is: a place where people just want a chance to work hard and play by the rules,” Warren said. “That’s why I’m here.”

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