Elizabeth Warren, the likely Democratic nominee in the Massachusetts Senate race, has had a bad week.
Warren, who has polled closely with incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown, has spent the week responding to questions and criticism about her listing herself as a minority based on tenuous Native-American ancestry in faculty directories at the University of Texas, University of Pennsylvania and Harvard in the 1980s and 1990s.
Genealogists have traced Warren’s Native-American heritage, but the results didn’t put the story to bed. It turned out that Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother was Cherokee, making Warren 1/32nd Cherokee.
Although several of Warren’s past employers have stated that Warren’s minority status played no role in their hiring process, Warren’s explanations for her self-identification haven’t helped her case.
Warren, 62, said Wednesday she listed herself as Native American in the hopes that she would meet what she described as other people like her.
That same day, when speaking to a local reporter, the Oklahoma City native recounted a story of how her Aunt Bee used to envy her grandfather’s “high cheekbones” - which Aunt Bee described as a physical characteristic of many Native Americans.
“I still have a picture on my mantle at home, and it’s a picture of my mother’s dad, a picture of my grandfather, and my Aunt Bee has walked by that picture at least a 1000 times, remarked that her father, my Pappa, had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do, because that’s how she saw it, and your mother got those same great cheekbones, and I didn’t. And she thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life” Warren said.
It’s unlikely that any further or continued explanation will dig Warren out of the situation. “She needs to change the conversation and I think she needs to do that soon,” says Jeffrey Berry, professor of political science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.
Warren’s campaign is important for Democrats, who hold a 53-to-47 majority over Republicans in the Senate. Of the 33 contested Senate seats this election, only 10 of them are held by Republicans. So the Democrats’ plan for holding onto the majority ideally involves picking up at least one seat from Republicans.
Going forward, Berry said, Warren’s best bet is to try and nationalize her message.
“The way forward is tying herself to President Obama and nationalizing the election, convey the message, this is an election about who controls the Senate, the Democrats or the Republicans?” he said. “Who is going to help President Obama or work against President Obama?”
In the short term, however, Warren faces the more pressing question of how to actually change the conversation. Her campaign had a brief opportunity earlier in the week when Brown, who has been a vocal opponent of the Affordable Care Act, revealed that his 23-year-old daughter is still on his health insurance. One of the parts of the Affordable Care Act that has already taken effect is a provision allowing children to remain on their parent’s healthcare until age 26.
The Warren campaign seized the opportunity and attacked Brown, calling him a hypocrite, but the story didn’t pick up as much traction within the state, possibly because the Massachusetts state health care law, which Brown supports, also includes a provision that allows parents to keep their children on their health care plans until age 26.
“While she tried to volley back and get the press to be as aggressive in the Brown-’Obamacare’ story, that’s not been certainly successful. Of the two stories, this one is getting much more coverage,” Berry said.
Berry suggested that Warren focus on positive messaging for now, instead of attacking Brown. “I think she needs to make a pro-Elizabeth Warren argument, ” he said, “and remind people that her background was a janitor’s daughter growing up in Oklahoma.”
CORRECTION: Warren’s great-great-great grandmother, O.C. Sarah Smith, was referenced as Cherokee Indian on her son William Crawford’s 1894 marriage license application, a 2006 family newsletter showed. The document itself was not an actual marriage license, and it has not been located, according to genealogists at the New England Historic Genealogical Society.