Elizabeth Warren won her party’s Senate nomination on Saturday with the backing of 96% of Democratic delegates at the state convention. Candidates need to get at least 15% of the convention vote to be eligible for a fall primary, which means there won’t be one this year. Warren’s decisive win was a show of force for a first–time candidate with a national rep and a knack for fundraising. And it was easy—a lot easier than many Democrats thought it would be, given that the month prior to the convention had been so hard.
For the past five weeks, the Massachusetts Senate race has been dominated by the peculiar issue of Warren’s heritage, which a number of universities–and Warren herself–listed as Native American during her academic career. Republicans, who question the legitimacy of Warren’s claim that she’s 1/32nd Cherokee, are casting it as an affirmative-action scandal, evidence of undeserved Ivy League credentials. Given her academic successes, that’s probably more of an indictment of universities’ desperation to appear diverse than a knock on Warren’s merits. But the drip of revelations has been damaging, and the candidate has struggled to clearly explain what happened.
“I won’t deny who I am, I won’t deny my heritage, but I didn’t ask for anything because of it,” Warren told the Boston Globe last week, the first interview in which she admitted that she had told Harvard that she was Native American. Warren does not have any documented evidence of Indian genealogy or tribal membership, but she told the Globe that her parents eloped because her father’s family disapproved of her mother’s native roots. “It’s who I am, it’s how I grew up,” she said. But a lot of the story is fuzzy. Warren didn’t explain why she vacillated between identifying herself as Native American and Caucasian in a national directory of law professors, or why she never brought up her minority status to profile writers before the Boston Herald outed her in late April.
Warren’s lack of clarity has frustrated some Democrats. “There has to be an answer for this at some point, something that’s full and comprehensive and has some closure to it as opposed to the way it’s been dragged out — like water torture,” Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch said last week. Mary Anne Marsh, an unaffiliated Democratic strategist in Massachusetts, says while both Warren and Brown may eventually regret losing a month to this issue, Republicans’ ability to sustain the story during a key period of the campaign was impressive. “Scott Brown could not have bought this coverage,” she says, and the halting response from Warren was indicative of “a first-time candidate [running] into her first big problem.”
Just how big of problem is it really? A recent Globe poll found that 72% voters don’t care about the heritage issue at all. But surveys also show a near-even race between a Democratic outsider in a reliably blue state and a well-liked moderate incumbent who appeals to Massachusetts’ sizable independent bloc. That means that the minority of voters who do think heritage is an issue could swing the race. While the contest has tightened over the last two months, Warren’s unfavorable rating has jumped 9 points to 32%, while her 48% favorable rating has hardly moved. “It stopped her from making a positive case for herself,” says Marsh.
The next step may not particularly positive either. Marsh says that in order to move on, Warren needs to bruise Brown. She’s been attacking him as “Wall Street’s favorite Senator” for the past year, but while there’s more fodder for that attack today, it’s not one that polls better than Warren’s identity issue. With tens of millions of dollars worth of campaign funds and a five-month general election ahead, things are about to get more granular, and probably more abrasive. “I’d love to see some debates with Scott Brown,’’ Warren said after her landslide convention victory on Saturday. “Let’s get started on this. I’m ready.’’ Democrats hope that’s finally true.
Somewhere, Martha Coakley must be smiling. The Massachusetts attorney general, whose consumer advocacy and status as Democratic heir apparent couldn’t save her from a humiliating loss to Scott Brown in 2010, has been twice vindicated this month. First, the man whose criticism induced the worst bungle of her campaign has imploded spectacularly: Former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, whom Coakley once mistakenly pegged as a Yankee fan, brought financial ruin on himself and the state of Rhode Island by running his company into the ground. Second, Warren, billed as the charismatic champion Coakley wasn’t, proved again that just because you’re a Democrat in Massachusetts doesn’t mean you’ll have it easy.