Elizabeth Warren won a landslide victory in the midterm elections and is thinking of running for president in 2020. Massachusetts Democrats, however, have not fared well in presidential elections over the past half-century, and, if she runs, Warren would face problems inherent in the Massachusetts political culture.
It’s been a long time since John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in 1960. Edward M. Kennedy failed against President Jimmy Carter in the 1980 Democratic primaries. Michael Dukakis lost to George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential election. John Kerry was defeated by George W. Bush in 2004.
Ted Kennedy’s responsibility for the Chappaquiddick accident did not prevent his reelection to the Senate, but it crippled his challenge to Carter. The rape by convicted murderer Willie Horton while on prison furlough did not hurt Governor Dukakis’s standing in the state, but Bush used it against him effectively in the 1988 campaign. John Kerry earned election and reelection to the US Senate in large part because of his experience as a battle-scarred Vietnam veteran who came to oppose the war, yet Republicans turned that record against him. Many people in the national electorate were bothered by personal and political matters that had not fazed Massachusetts voters.
In Warren’s case, the Native American controversy will not go away. It surfaced in 2012 when she first ran for the Senate. Last month, she tried to lay it to rest by releasing results of DNA testing that showed she had a bit of indigenous ancestry. A spokesmen for the Cherokee Nation criticized her for suggesting that a small amount of DNA gave her any claim to a connection.
The controversy had its origin in the 1980s and ’90s, when Warren included a reference to herself as a minority in a legal directory. She says she wanted to connect with academics of similar background. At the time, she was advancing her career by gaining law professorships at the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania, and then Harvard. It is reasonable to wonder whether she knew law schools were desperate to get minorities on overwhelmingly white faculties. That said, a comprehensive report by the Globe’s Annie Linskey concluded, “At every step of her remarkable rise in the legal profession, the people responsible for hiring her saw her as a white woman.”
Massachusetts voters elected her to the Senate in 2012 with 53.7 percent of the vote and re-elected her earlier this month with a 60.3 percent majority. The voters rightly concluded that Warren’s ancestry was trivial compared to her positions on economic inequality, health care, and the other issues.
Warren has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate. If she gets the Democratic nomination for president, Republicans will attack her for that and anything else they think will tarnish her – if not the Nnative American controversy then something else that Massachusetts voters would consider inconsequential.
A presidential contest is not really a national election but a state-by-state battle. Hillary Clinton would be president today if she had won the 46 electoral votes of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, three states she barely lost.
Warren’s 60.3 percent this year was about the same as Clinton’s 60 percent share of the Massachusetts vote in 2016. Warren was unable to get much support from people who had cast ballots for Donald Trump or third-party candidates. More of these voters live in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan than in Massachusetts. The next Democratic nominee for president will need to attract many of them to win in 2020.
Democrats did well in those three states in the midterms, electing or reelecting governors and US senators, and increasing their number of US representatives. The winning candidates found language and issues that resonated with the people there. Massachusetts voters, who have not elected a Republican to Congress in 24 years, are not in sync with those voters.
Warren rose from a humble background and a failed marriage to become an influential professor at Harvard Law School, joined the Obama administration as an advocate for people devastated by the great recession, and won election and reelection to the Senate. She would make a fine president. Her record, however, is not enough to compensate for the reality that voters here react differently from those in other parts of the country.
The 2020 presidential election will be won in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Senator Warren, please don’t run.
Thomas Gagen is a former editorial writer for the Globe.