Her fierce indictments of Wall Street electrify Democrats across the country. Her unapologetically progressive brand and fiery style match the mood of her party’s liberal base. She is locking down top political talent and has the beginnings of a formidable campaign organization.
But according to interviews with two dozen senior Democratic strategists, activists and early-voting-state officials, Elizabeth Warren still faces one major challenge: convincing Democrats that she can defeat President Donald Trump.
“She is classified as a far-left liberal,” said South Carolina state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, who said he does not share that view. “And again, we’re looking for someone who has a strategy for the Electoral College board. And it just seems that she has some work to do in that area.”
The question of which candidate is best-positioned to beat Trump is, according to polls, the defining issue of the Democratic presidential primary, and candidates of every ideological stripe will have to make their electability cases.
Yet the issue is particularly charged for Warren because voters have already seen her attempt to go head-to-head with Trump—and come out diminished, in the eyes of her critics.
Trump has an uncanny ability to brand rivals with cutting nicknames, and his arsenal includes mocking references to Warren as “Pocahontas,” taunting her longtime claims of Native American heritage. So the senator released results of a DNA test last fall in an effort to shut down Trump’s line of attack.
Instead, the episode offered a roadmap for how Trump would define Warren if she wins her party’s nomination. The image still unsettles some Democrats months later.
“In watching the scenario where Trump has called her ‘Pocahontas,’ then her efforts to react to that, to prove something, I don’t think it went over well,” said Iowa state Sen. Liz Mathis.
“Now, she has apologized, although I know that he will pick on that like a scab,” she continued. “He’s going to go after that if she becomes the frontrunner. He’s going to go after that and ridicule her. While that is not fair and it seems like it’s bullying, it’s a reality: when people go up against him, that he’s just going to be mean.”
Warren indeed apologized after Native Americans were offended by the test and her past claims of Native American identity—she lacks tribal citizenship— and many Democrats expect the substance of the matter to blow over, especially given Trump’s propensity for attacking Warren in racially charged terms, which can spur a circling-the-wagons effect.
But the subject has periodically resurfaced through new reporting, prompting some Democrats to have uneasy flashbacks to the sustained scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s email practices in 2016, another issue that Democrats dismissed but that Trump effectively exploited.
In interviews, Democrats said none of Warren’s challenges are insurmountable. Other candidates could face similar struggles or worse the moment Trump turns his attention on them, perhaps closer to the time voters head to the polls.
And in an election cycle in which Trump intends to cast Democrats as radicals, Warren is not the field’s furthest-left candidate on economic matters—democratic socialist Bernie Sanders takes that mantle. Charges from Trump and Republicans that Democrats are socialists even gave Warren an opportunity to reiterate her identity as a capitalist.
After the upheaval of the last presidential election, many Democrats are also adamant that no one can predict electability against Trump.
“The biggest worry with the Native American issue is people who psych themselves out, think Trump’s going to attack her in the general, so we take our Michael Jordan off the field,” acknowledged Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a liberal group that has endorsed Warren. “What those people don’t realize is Trump will attack every Democrat on something.”
Before she was Elizabeth Warren of Cambridge, Mass.—Harvard professor, ferocious critic of an economically “rigged system,” progressive U.S. senator—she was Betsy Herring of Norman, Okla., the daughter of a janitor and a minimum wage Sears employee.
That is the person Warren is eager to introduce on the presidential stage, casting herself as a champion of working people who forged her ideals through experiences of hardship in the heartland, rather than in an ivy tower in one of the country’s most liberal cities.
“Many people were super fascinated to hear that,” said Leah Daughtry, a longtime Democratic strategist, speaking of Warren’s recent mentions of her hardscrabble childhood. “It really broadened her out, filled out some of the broad strokes she’s been painting.”
Even Warren’s video announcing the DNA test was peppered with nods to her red-state upbringing, featuring her Republican brothers who served in the military and references to her “mama” and “daddy,” a down-home side of the senator that early-state activists say has been received well on the campaign trail. She has mentioned those brothers repeatedly when asked about her approach to broadening the Democratic Party’s appeal.
“Remember those three brothers I was talking about? One is a Democrat,” she said during a campaign stop in Georgia. “I know. Think about that. ‘Cause I want you to understand, I love all three of my brothers, and they love me. And yeah, there are things we don’t agree on right now. But at the end of the day, there’s actually a lot we do agree on.”
She pointed to issues such as health care, affordable education, infrastructure and even climate change, and spoke of a responsibility to “make that case to all of America about how it is that we can come together and we can fight for the things, the values that we all believe in.”
Yet Warren is still better known, among many voters, as the left-wing Ivy League professor who catapulted onto the national stage by crusading against Wall Street in the wake of the financial crisis.
“She needs to sort of break through the, I think false, image some people may have of her as being the Harvard Law School professor,” said Kathy Sullivan, the Democratic national committeewoman from New Hampshire. “Now Sen. Warren, in actuality, she’s somebody who’s from the heartland, Oklahoma, who’s a totally, I think, very down-to-earth person. She has to overcome the false image some may have of her.”
Fairly or not, that image stokes concerns in some corners that she is not just anti-corporate greed but is more broadly anti-business, a reputation that bothers not just Republicans and independents, but also some Democrats, especially those looking beyond the primary and to the general election.
“Her rhetoric around Wall Street, while it may be accurate...some people may think it’s accurate, it runs the risk—without a counterbalancing measure of also supporting business, that there’s nothing wrong with making money—there is a risk that people see you as anti-business, and that’s not who we are,” Daughtry said.
Kimpson, the state senator, said that there is a perception that “she’s extremely liberal and her policies will not fit within the mainstream of voters in 2020. I disagree with that. If being a liberal means fighting for people who have been left out, then call me a liberal.”
But, he stressed, “it’s incumbent upon her and any other candidate that’s viewed as far left to control that conversation.”
Warren’s supporters argue that her career has centered on boosting working families and the broader middle class, hardly a fringe outlook, especially in today’s Democratic Party.
“Elizabeth is fighting for big, popular structural changes—like ending corruption in Washington, giving workers a strong voice on corporate boards, universal child care, an ultra-millionaires tax — all focused on making our government and economy work for everyone, not just the wealthy and the well-connected,” said Kristen Orthman, Warren’s communications director, in a statement.
And recent data from the major Democratic group Priorities USA shows that voters find particularly compelling the message that Trump cares more about corporate interests than about average Americans. While plenty of Democrats are poised to make that argument, Warren has been discussing those themes more loudly and for longer than many in the field.
“Donald Trump won in 2016 by bashing Wall Street speeches, corporate trade deals and corruption,” said Green of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. ”He lied about all that, but he tapped into something real, which is, people want someone who’s going to shake up the system in a big way.”
“The best way to beat Trump at his own game,” Green continued, “is to have a Democrat who voters know is consistently on the side of working people, willing to challenge powerful interests and the system itself on their behalf.”
Warren is near-universally considered a top-tier Democratic contender whose policy proposals on issues such as universal child care have earned plaudits from activists across the party.
But even some of her strongest supporters concede that her clashes with Trump over her heritage could complicate her electability argument in the minds of voters.
“That’s a variable, that’s a real variable,” Green said. If voters think that way, he continued, “It would be really shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Others were sharper in their assessments of how the situation has affected Warren’s standing in the early states.
“It’s an authenticity issue,” said Jerry Crawford, a veteran of Iowa Democratic politics, who said that at the activist level, “people talk about it all time,” even as he also praised her team in the state.
“There’s a question of whether she will allow the personality contest between her and Donald Trump to be a distraction from having a real policy debate,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist. “Can she stay laser-focused on the task at hand? I don’t doubt it but there’s a cloud of questions that looms.”
Many other Democrats hope that because of Warren’s apology and her willingness to push bold policy proposals, the issue will fade to the backburner.
“She has taken clear steps to resolve the issue and has apologized now both publicly and privately,” said Brian Fallon, a former press secretary on Clinton’s campaign. “In many respects she deserves to be able to move forward, to not have her candidacy continue to be defined around that issue when in my mind she is really dictating the tempo and the flow of the conversation on the trail on issues of substance.”
Indeed, voters have been eager to hear about other issues and are often receptive to her, say some early-state activists.
“She’s got a great message and she should stick to the message and ignore the media’s constantly asking about her Native American heritage,” said Judy Reardon, a veteran New Hampshire Democratic strategist. Noting Warren’s crowd sizes, Reardon continued, “It does not appear to me that voters have yet come to some sort of conclusion about her viability.”
But there is a risk, others warn, that the issue continues to reemerge, whether through fresh reporting, the process of a competitive primary or simply a Trump tweet.
“She looks at things logically and she’s very common sense,” said Mathis, the Iowa state senator. “He doesn’t fight that way. He fights dirty and it’s illogical and he’s still able to sway public opinion. So will she be capable of navigating that, will she be capable of going up against that? Everyone knows Elizabeth Warren is a fighter—boy, is she a fighter—but will she be able to go up against this challenger in a way that’s going to make her look like the champion?”
Alex Roarty contributed to this report.