Mass. voters shrugging off Warren’s claims of Cherokee heritage

The controversy swirling around Elizabeth Warren over her claim to Native American heritage might be terrible optics for the Democrat, but it doesn’t appear to be hurting her among Massachusetts voters.

As Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) fights for reelection in one of the most liberal states in the country, he and his allies spotted an opening to make the race about Warren and her integrity rather than a referendum on Republican policies backed by Brown and Mitt Romney.  

But two new polls show Brown and Warren locked in a dead heat, and most voters say the ancestry issue is moot.

A Suffolk University poll released Wednesday showed Brown leading Warren by just 1 point, 48 percent to 47. Although 72 percent said they knew about the controversy, 69 percent said it wasn’t important. Just under half of voters said they believed Warren was telling the truth.

A day earlier, a poll commissioned by Senate Democrats showed Warren and Brown tied at 46 percent.

“This has been like a fender-bender on the side of the road,” said Joe Malone, the former state treasurer and a major GOP player in Massachusetts. “They’re slowing down to look, but it’s not changing where they’re heading.”

Both sides had been bracing themselves for new poll numbers that most expected would show the issue had taken a major toll on Warren’s image.

But the new polls showed the opposite. When Suffolk polled the race in February, Warren was down 9 points. She has actually gained 8 points in the poll despite the flap over her heritage.

“You’re always surprised by something, but that overall ballot test number — it really did change,” said David Paleologos, the head of polling at Suffolk University. “What we can conclude is people do not believe it is a significant story.” 

Warren and Brown are locked into one of the most competitive Senate campaigns in the country, one that could decide control of the upper chamber next year. Both parties are pouring time and money into the race.

With little evidence the scandal is turning voters off, Brown has a tough call to make. He can continue hammering Warren, hoping that lingering questions about the extent to which the Democrat touted her minority status will prompt more negative press and eventually move the numbers. 

Or he can move on, pivot back to his positive message about bipartisanship and concede that a scandal Republicans hoped would be Warren’s death knell might be water under the bridge.

“Unless he’s got something else that reinforces the seed he’s planted, that indicates a pattern, he’s going to have to move on,” said Malone. “Pretty soon the media will bail. If this is a yawner to the voters, let’s move on to something else.”

For Warren, the Suffolk poll is welcome news. Since the story first broke a month ago, hardly a day has gone by without a major story in the Boston newspapers about how Warren, a light-skinned law professor from Oklahoma, was touted by universities where she taught as a Native American, a minority and — at Harvard — a “woman of color.”

Warren has been unable to substantiate her claim to be part Cherokee, and her campaign has repeatedly fumbled attempts to set the record straight. 

Warren said she was proud of her heritage, which has been part of her family lore for generations, and said initially she had listed herself as Native American in faculty directories in hopes of meeting others like her. She cited her grandfather’s high cheekbones as a reason her family believed it had native blood. 

Meanwhile, genealogists tasked with charting her ancestry found no solid evidence that any of her relatives were Native American.

Brown’s campaign has worked aggressively to make the most out of the kind of story opposition researchers dream about stumbling upon. Brown’s team questioned whether Warren had claimed minority status to get a leg up in the academic world, and Brown personally called on Warren to release her personnel and academic records. Warren maintained she had never received any special treatment and accused Brown of insinuating she was unqualified due to her gender.

The story garnered national headlines, earning her a rebuke from a Cherokee blogger and working its way into an episode of the hit Fox television show “Glee.” Even Democrats started taking Warren to task — not for claiming she was a minority, but for mounting a deficient response once the story broke. 

“It’s really not a story about Elizabeth Warren’s qualifications for Harvard,” said Jim Barnett, Brown’s campaign manager, in an interview. “It’s about her qualifications for being a U.S. senator, and that’s about being honest and forthright. She’s failed that test badly.”  

In Massachusetts — where Democrats outnumber Republicans 3 to 1 but independents make up more than half the electorate — voters have a history of shrugging off scandals that would in other states prove fatal. Brown’s predecessor, former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D), survived the Chappaquiddick incident to win reelection for another four decades. Rep. Barney Frank (D) survived a prostitution scandal, and Gov. Deval Patrick (D) outlived a $46,000 Cadillac he leased with taxpayer dollars during his first weeks in office.

In Warren’s case, the disinterest in the Native American issue evidenced by recent polls might reflect the fact that those paying attention to the Senate race six months out are mostly base voters from both parties who are unlikely to switch their allegiance, said Lou DiNatale, a Democratic strategist in Massachusetts.

Once undecided voters — including the large swath of independents ­— start tuning in to the race in the last few months, Brown might have an opening to reprise the controversy to greater effect.

“If I’m on the opposite side, I’m planning myself a full-blooded Native American who wants to stand in front of every one of her campaign events,” said DiNatale.

But Democrats point out that if Brown wants the issue front and center in the fall, he’ll have to put it there himself. A pact devised by Brown and agreed to by both campaigns in January bars outside groups from sinking millions of dollars into ads dredging up the ancestry issue or any other attack line.

“It’s clear that the people of Massachusetts are not distracted by Republican Scott Brown’s negative attacks,” said Warren spokeswoman Alethea Harney, adding that Warren was standing up for families while Brown was siding with big banks and corporations. “As more people across the commonwealth get to know Elizabeth and see her standing up to Wall Street and Big Oil and their armies of lobbyists, grassroots support for her campaign will keep growing strong.”