Elizabeth Warren DNA test reveals 2020 will be a mud-slinging contest

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., right, accompanied by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., left, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017, to unveil their Medicare for All legislation to reform health care. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

The political world was jolted from the 2018 midterm elections to 2020 after Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren rolled out a campaign-style advertisement declaring her Native American heritage.

The ad was meant to be a rebuke to President Donald Trump regularly derides the blonde, blue-eyed senator as "Pocahontas" and offered to personally donate $1 million to Warren's favorite charity if she took a DNA test proving her Native American heritage. Warren's origin story includes the claim that her mother was part Cherokee and part Delaware.

Rather than definitively answering questions about Warren's ancestry, it virtually confirmed her intent to run for president in 2020 and made clear that she wants to brawl politically with President Trump.

"I never expected my family’s story to be used as a racist political joke, but I don’t take any fight lying down," Warren tweeted Monday, along with the results of her test which "strongly support" the conclusion that she had a Native American ancestor six to ten generations ago. That would make Warren between 1/64th and 1/1,024th Native American.

She followed the announcement with a Twitter tirade against President Trump. In roughly two dozen tweets, Warren laid into the president as "a cowardly elitist," "corrupt," "out of touch," "creepy" and "scared." She pointed to reports that Trump lied about his origin story as a self-made billionaire, writing that Trump is "REALLY pretending to be someone they're not."

Finally, she pressed Trump to make good on his promise and donate $1 million to National Indigenous Women's Resource Center. After denying he ever offered the donation, Trump replied he would make the donation only if Warren got the Democratic nomination and only if he can "test her personally."

Not to be outdone, Trump was back on the insult bandwagon Tuesday morning, tweeting, "Pocahontas (the bad version), sometimes referred to as Elizabeth Warren, is getting slammed. She took a bogus DNA test and it showed that she may be 1/1024, far less than the average American. Now Cherokee Nation denies her, 'DNA test is useless.' Even they don’t want her. Phony!"

If Warren's 2020 teaser is any indication, the next presidential contest will be fought in the mud with at least some Democrats borrowing from President Trump's playbook.

"We want to fight fire with fire," said Scott Ferson a Democratic Party strategist based in Massachusetts. "Democrat's love Michelle Obama, but 'when they go low' we are always looking for the red meat of going lower."

Only a small percentage of Democratic voters will choose the party's presidential nominee when primary season starts in February 2020. Those are the voters who are more likely to turn out for a real political fight. Appealing to the most "rabid" portion of the base may not be the greatest strategy for the general election, but "it's a good primary strategy," Ferson noted.

According to some on the left, a Democrats have to stand up to the president and cannot afford to let Trump set the terms of the political discourse as he did in 2016. "To fight a bulldog, you need a bulldog," said David Helfenbein, a political analyst and former staffer for Secretary of State Hillary. He argued that in the next election, Trump's Democratic challenger "absolutely" needs to "get in the mud and don't let him craft the narrative."

However, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he thrives in a combative environment. Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, Democrats will be giving Trump a gift if they decide to fight him on the basis of insults. "There is nothing that President Trump loves more than trying to litigate his insults," he said. "When you're trying to push back on him in these fights he is going to win."

Part of Trump's success in the Republican primaries was systematically branding his opponents with demeaning and memorable nicknames, from "Lying Ted" Cruz, to "Low-energy Jeb" Bush, and "Little Marco" Rubio. He has already branded the top 2020 Democratic contenders "Sleepy Joe" Biden and "Crazy Bernie" Sanders .

"It may be jarring at first, it may turn a few people off, but it's pretty much worked out for him because he's looking to his strength," O'Connell continued. "And nobody in the Democratic Party has any idea how to fight when they get down in the mud with him."

Meanwhile, Democrats facing difficult election campaigns in the coming weeks have sought to avoid the mud-slinging. In an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday, Florida gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum quoted his grandmother, rather than giving his opinion on the latest partisan name-calling. "Never, ever wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty, but the pig likes it," he said.

Many Warren supporters applauded her for responding directly to the president's insults and calling his bluff with a DNA test, other Democrats were less excited about what they considered an ill-timed presidential announcement.

"Argue the substance all you want, but why 22 days before a crucial election where we MUST win house and senate to save America, why did @SenWarren have to do her announcement now?" tweeted Jim Messina, former campaign manager for Barack Obama's 2012 reelection. "Why can't Dems ever stay focused???"

Former manager for Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign, Robby Mook, took to Twitter arguing Democrats should stay focused and avoid reacting to the latest outrage. "Whether it’s the midterms in 3 wks or 2020, we—campaigns, the media—need to learn the lesson of 2016 and keep the focus on issues that affect real people’s lives, not the Trump trap of insults. Not DNA. Not emails."

The backlash from members of the Democratic Party was only matched by the indignation of the Cherokee Nation. Responding on behalf of the tribe, Cherokee Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin, Jr. issued a statement saying Warren is "undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage."

Later in a CNN interview, Hoskin faulted both Warren and Trump saying, "Indian country needs leaders in Washington who understand our issues, not who get in a back and forth of name-calling."

Warren's claims to Native American ancestry were first put to the test in 2012 in her Senate campaign. Then-incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown accused her of benefiting from her status as a minority while teaching at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Harvard University. Warren and her former university colleagues have denied her claimed heritage played any part in her hiring.

In 2016, when Warren was rumored to be on the short list of Democratic vice presidential candidates, Trump seized on the issue at a rally calling her "Pocahontas," and hasn't let it go.

By releasing her ancestry, Warren was trying to get ahead of an issue that would inevitably be used by her Democratic primary opponents and hammered on by Trump. The results, showing she is less than 0.1 percent Native American, may not permanently resolve the matter.

Ultimately, Warren's DNA test may have shifted the Democrats' narrative away from the 2018 midterms, but it raised her profile ahead of the Nov. 7 unofficial start of the 2020 race— for better or worse.

"She wants to differentiate herself from a field that's starting to look like a potential 20-car pileup," O'Connell said.

With 15 months until the Iowa Caucuses, the Democratic field is packed. According to a recent poll by CNN, Democratic voters have the most favorable opinion of former Vice President Joe Biden, with 33 percent of likely voters saying he is their preferred candidate. Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders is the second most popular candidate with 13 percent support, followed by California Sen. Kamala Harris at 9 percent and Elizabeth Warren at 8 percent.

The remaining field of 12 other possibilities polled at less than 5 percent. That includes New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Secretary of State John Kerry and Texas Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke.

Michael Avenatti, adult film star Stormy Daniels's lawyer in a suit against President Trump, also made the list as a candidate who is willing to get dirty with Trump. Billionaire New Yorker Michael Bloomberg has long been considered a potential liberal alternative to Trump who could run as a Democrat or Independent. Some Democrats are also looking at former Obama Attorney General Eric Holder, who recently fired up supporters by telling them, when Republicans go low, "we kick them."

President Trump has welcomed the field of 2020 hopefuls with open arms. In an interview in August, he told CBS News, "I dream about Joe Biden." He said he would also like to campaign against any of the seven or eight presidential hopefuls rumored to be running at the time, including Warren, Sanders, Harris, Booker and others. "I'd like to run against any one of them."

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