Elizabeth Warren is having a media moment, and not much of the news has been good.
There was a front-page New York Times story describing a darkening cloud of controversy over her nascent 2020 presidential campaign thanks to a now infamous DNA test. A prominent Washington Post article followed, dissecting who’s in and out of her political team, on the heels of polls showing voters in her home state are not enthused by the prospect of her running.
Mix them together with an unflattering editorial from her hometown paper, her Senate reelection results (Governor Charlie Baker won by a bigger margin), and a lot of idle political consultants, and the rest of the media had ingredients for countless other stories painting a picture of a wounded Warren campaign — before it’s even gotten off the ground.
Many seasoned political operatives say the no-good, very bad news cycle Warren is experiencing is not a surprise. She is, in the minds of pundits, among the front-runners in a primary that still hasn’t officially launched, and she has done more than any other likely candidate to lay the groundwork for a presidential run. It makes sense she’d be drawing media scrutiny early, they say.
“Welcome to throwing your hat in the ring. This is how it works,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant and veteran campaign manager.
But for others, the stories emerged from real flaws in Warren’s candidacy — a team that’s too insular, a candidate with a Hillary Clinton-like problem that just won’t go away — and thus portend an uphill slog for her to seize the nomination, should she ultimately decide to run.
“Certainly as a Democrat who wants a Democrat to beat Donald Trump in 2020, I could think of lots of other people who are ahead of her, who I think would be better as the nominee,” said Neil Oxman, a Democratic media consultant based in Philadelphia.
Warren and her team appear to be trying to just power through the choppy waters. Asked to respond to criticism that she’s divisive, Warren said, “I fight for what I believe in.
“And part of that fight upsets some really powerful people. And they fight back. That’s no surprise. But it doesn’t mean I should change anything,” she told the Globe in a brief interview in the halls of the Senate.
Publicly, the Cambridge Democrat continues to say she is “working through” her decision on whether to run. Behind the scenes, Warren is making calls to political and grass-roots leaders in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, according to a person familiar with her operation — and she’s impressing scores of insiders with how extensive that outreach has been.
Her staff has been having discussions with early state operatives as well, and they’ve been scouting possible space for campaign headquarters in the Boston area, the person said.
In reality, it is too early to tell what this negative media attention really means. None of the other 20-plus potential candidates in the wide-open Democratic field has actually launched a campaign, convened rallies in key primary states, trekked to coffee shops and living rooms, or started fund-raising in earnest.
“We’re in a limbo period right now,” said Brian Fallon, a top aide on Clinton’s 2016 campaign. If Warren is among those candidates who launch official bids early next year, he predicted, she would attract good-sized crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire, raising tons of small-dollar donations online.
In the face of those strengths, the narrative that she’s in a rough patch “will immediately dissolve once she’s able to actually campaign and people can see the organic displays of enthusiasm for her as a candidate,” he said.
Democrats are locked in an internal debate about whether they need a candidate who can throw good punches or rise above as a unifying force. Republicans for years have tried to turn Warren into a left-wing bogeyman, and some Democrats worry she has indeed become too polarizing to beat Trump. Her election performance – she won by a 24-point margin, while Baker won by nearly 34 points — has sparked enough hand-wringing that Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman Gus Bickford penned a blog post using data to argue that Warren’s win was in fact “overwhelming” and pointing out she didn’t spend a dime on television ads. Baker spent $11 million.
The Globe’s editorial board, which urged Warren to run for president in 2015, called her “a divisive figure” in a piece that has been widely interpreted as suggesting she should consider sitting this contest out. The Post described it as “cutting.” The conservative Washington Times teed up an opinion piece dissecting the editorial with the headline “ ‘Fauxcahontas’ Elizabeth Warren’s stock just went down — again,” and the liberal Huffington Post saw the piece as offering the “advice” — “don’t do it.”
But much of the negative press has focused on Warren’s controversial decision to release the results of a DNA test showing “strong evidence” of Native American ancestry dating back six to 10 generations. It was a bold move by Warren’s team to try to put out, once and for all, the controversy surrounding her decision to identify herself as Native American as a law professor
Instead, the move kicked up further conflict and more bad press. Many Native Americans reacted with outrage. Most insiders see it as a gamble that blew up in Warren’s face. Privately, it has led some Democrats to question whether the team around her is savvy enough to take on the big stakes of a presidential campaign.
“It was a self-inflicted error,” reinjecting an issue into the debate that average voters weren’t thinking about, said Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire political science professor.
Warren’s inability to admit a mistake in claiming herself as Native American as a professor, to say “Yep, I did it,” make a joke and move on, demonstrated to Smith a “brittleness” in Warren that doesn’t bode well for the primary fight, he said. “Voters are very forgiving if you are willing to basically admit to your sins.”
On the other hand, some observers, albeit a minority, believe the DNA decision showed an aggressiveness that will serve Warren well in the months ahead.
“That strategy of not sitting back, not being passive, is part of what it’s going to take for somebody to emerge in a very crowded field,” said Fallon.
Which brings us back to the reality that it’s still early, early days in the 2020 contest and no one really knows anything other than this is not going to be the first rough news cycle for Warren, and that any other hopeful who gets within striking distance of the front of the primary pack is in for their own turn.
“It is a brutal, brutal process. No one – no one – survives it without having not one [but] maybe 10, maybe 15 horrible down times,” said Trippi, who served as national campaign manager for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. “The whole process is about who makes it through no matter how brutal those falls are.”
If anything, Warren’s current spell, coming as early as it has, could prove to be helpful down the road, giving her an early taste of what she’s likely to encounter.
“It’s a good test. It helps you understand what the terrain looks like out there for you, how to navigate it,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Boston-based Democratic political strategist. “I don’t think it’s going to deter her in any way, and I think that says a lot about her and it also shows a real contrast between her and Deval Patrick,” she added, referring to the former Massachusetts governor’s announcement that he would forgo a 2020 bid because of “the cruelty of our elections process.”
“Elizabeth Warren doesn’t shirk from a fight,” she said.