There are topics Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren says she wants to talk about in her campaign, including Wall Street and Big Oil. And there are those she’d sooner avoid, such as her Native American roots.
The Democrat’s opponent, Republican Senator Scott Brown, and his allies have tried to force her to confront the latter subject, demanding more disclosure on her claim to be part Cherokee and whether it boosted her employment prospects at Harvard Law School and the University of Pennsylvania.
While the Massachusetts race was billed as a tilt between clashing ideologies and as a chance for Democrats to retake the seat the late Ted Kennedy held, it has been roiled by the debate over Warren’s ethnicity. The law professor, who turns 63 today, has said she has some Cherokee blood, without providing documentation, and that her claimed heritage didn’t help her win teaching jobs at the two Ivy League schools. Critics want proof.
The question now is how long the issue will linger and whether it will matter to voters come November.
“It has damaged her,” said Jeffrey Berry, who teaches politics at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, citing her handling of media inquiries on the topic.
“For a lot of voters, their first impression of Professor Warren is of someone who is unsure of herself, bumbling and maybe even a bit silly,” Berry said.
Last month Warren told reporters she listed herself as Native American in law school directories hoping to network over lunch with others like her.
“Nothing like that ever happened,” she said. “So I stopped checking it off.”
The Massachusetts Senate race is shaping up to be the most expensive in the U.S., according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group. Through March 31, Senate candidates, including those who had dropped out, had raised $33.1 million, more than in any other Senate contest. Warren had brought in $16 million and Brown $12 million.
Recent voter surveys show Warren has closed a gap as wide as 9 percentage points in February.
“Voters express little interest in Warren’s Native- American heritage and increasing support for Warren,” Mindy Myers, the Democrat’s campaign manager, said in a statement.
Yet the numbers in a Suffolk University telephone survey of 600 likely voters last month carry hints of the damage Berry cites. While 48 percent supported Brown to 47 percent for Warren in the poll -- a virtual tie, given the survey’s margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points -- it also showed the Democrat’s negative rating had risen by 5 percentage points from February.
“The only negative thing that happened between February and today is this Native American issue,” said David Paleologos, the poll’s Boston-based director. “What else could it be?”
A Western New England University telephone survey of 504 registered voters May 29-31 showed Warren’s unfavorable rating rose 10 percentage points, even as she led Brown, 45 percent to 43 percent. In a May 25-31 University of New Hampshire poll of 651 likely Massachusetts voters, conducted for the Boston Globe, 31 percent of independents -- the state’s largest bloc -- said the heritage issue made them less likely to back Warren.
In trying to become the first woman elected to the Senate from Massachusetts, Warren’s party provides a potential advantage: Just 11 percent of the state’s 4.1 million registered voters are Republican while 36 percent are Democrats.
That means “she has a solid core who will vote for anybody whose name isn’t Brown,” Berry said. Warren may also benefit from President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, he said. A television advertisement that aired last month showed Obama praising her humble roots as a janitor’s daughter.
Brown, 52, must hold onto his two-to-one advantage with independents, the state’s largest voting bloc, to hold onto his seat, Paleologos said. In the Suffolk poll, 60 percent of independents backed Brown to 35 percent for Warren.
Brown’s campaign continues to call on Warren to release personnel records regarding her hiring at Harvard and Penn.
“Cherokees Demand Truth from Elizabeth Warren,” a self- described group of 150 members of the tribe, also wants a fuller accounting, as do a group of black ministers in Boston. The religious leaders supported Brown in a January 2010 special election, when he defeated state Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, and became the state’s first Republican in the Senate in more than 30 years. Kennedy had died in office six months earlier.
“The story definitely has that trickle-forever quality to it,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist who managed Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Warren’s aides may have believed the issue unworthy of close attention, “and then you wake up one day and realize that was a mistake,” Trippi said.
Warren declined a Bloomberg News interview request for this story. Alethea Harney, a spokeswoman, supplied a statement that Warren is “hitting the ground running and she’s focused on the issues that are important to the families of Massachusetts, such as holding Wall Street accountable, ending subsidies for Big Oil, and creating good jobs.”
Brown also declined a request for comment on the subject, according to Colin Reed, a spokesman. Brown’s campaign manager, Jim Barnett, called the ethnicity issue a “festering wound that will heal only” when Warren opens up her personnel records.
The Boston Herald set off the furor with an April report that said Harvard had listed Warren as a minority professor for six years. The Globe then reported that a historical document existed showing Warren to be 1/32 Cherokee. The Globe corrected its story, saying the document’s “existence has not been proven.”
Warren, who had maintained she didn’t know about Harvard’s designation of her as a Native American, changed her story when she told the Globe on May 30 that she had informed law school officials at both Harvard and Penn of her bloodline after she was hired. “Warren finally confessed that she was the source for information that led Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania to falsely list her as a minority,” Barnett said June 1 in fundraising pitch for Brown.
The Herald in another report said Warren had contributed recipes to a late cousin for a 1984 Native American cookbook entitled, “Pow Wow Chow.” Under each of the recipes she contributed -- including one for a crab omelet and another for barbecued beans -- it says, “- Elizabeth Warren, Cherokee.”
Arriving by train at her party’s June 1 convention in Springfield, Massachusetts, Warren told reporters an impassioned story of how her mother and father eloped because his parents were against a marriage to a woman with Cherokee blood.
Brown, who has largely avoided direct comment on the subject, at one point told reporters, “My mom and dad have told me a lot of things too, but they’re not always true.”
Warren’s main campaign strategy is to tie Brown to the ills of Wall Street and big banks, telling voters that they have made life more difficult for middle-income Americans.
At the convention that formally nominated her, Warren hammered Brown for voting against three parts of Obama’s plan to create employment opportunities in Massachusetts and elsewhere. The failed bills included $175 billion for highways, $60 billion for other transportation infrastructure and $35 billion for teachers, police officers and firefighters, the latter two both financed by a tax on millionaires, according to Harney, Warren’s spokeswoman.
Brown voted against the spending bills as part of his long- standing effort to keep taxes down, said Reed, his spokesman. Reed also said Brown initiated two jobs bills that did pass: One to provide incentives to businesses that hire veterans and another to repeal a 3 percent withholding tax on companies that have contracts with government agencies.
By 55 percent to 33 percent, voters in the May Suffolk poll dismissed Warren’s attempts to portray Brown as beholden to the financial industry.
“People aren’t buying that he’s a tool of Wall Street,” Paleologos said.
Warren has also said Brown voted against repeal of the Big Oil Tax Subsidies Act, which would have closed $24 billion in tax loopholes for the petroleum industry. The senator opposed the measure because it would have done nothing to reduce fuel prices at the pump, Reed said.
Both candidates have said they would participate in broadcast debates during the next several months.
While political debates often don’t sway voters, “these have the potential to be significant,” Berry said.
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