Struggling Dems waiting for Hillary in 2014
By: Maggie Haberman
April 14, 2014 05:04 AM EDT
She’s one of the most sought-after surrogates of a party that can use all the help it can get in the midterms. But for reasons both personal and strategic, Hillary Clinton, potential Democratic 2016 standard-bearer, has largely resisted the tug of electoral politics — and likely won’t hit the trail for Democratic candidates until the heat of election season this fall.
More than a year removed from the State Department, Clinton is continuing to keep a remarkably low political — if not public — profile. She has remained in the news with a series of paid speeches, including one last week when she dodged a shoe hurled at her by an audience member. But when she campaigned for two friends last year — Terry McAuliffe in Virginia and Bill de Blasio in New York City — her aides made clear at the time those were exceptions.
Clinton’s absence so far from an uphill election year for her party contrasts with the other Democrats who are openly eyeing presidential bids in 2016, Vice President Joe Biden and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. Both have telegraphed that they plan to become active surrogates for Democrats on the ballot this year, though they have a lot more to gain politically than Clinton.
Campaign and party committee officials would love Clinton’s help whenever it comes but point out that Bill Clinton has begun campaigning and raising money for a number of Democrats running this year. Since his poll numbers remain high and the two are seen as a single entity, and people view him as tending to the family’s political business, Hillary Clinton gets credit for that.
Sources close to the former first lady say she’s likely to campaign in some capacity for Democrats in the run-up to the election, when they believe her involvement would pack the most punch. Her main focus in recent months has been on finishing her latest book about her time as secretary of state, which is due out June 10. A lengthy book tour is expected to follow, marking an intense period leading up to the midterms that could provide clues to Clinton’s thinking about another national campaign.
“I didn’t actually ask her; she told me,” Raymond Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Party chairman, said in an interview. He recounted what Clinton said in December were her plans for this year: “’I’m going to finish my book, then I’ve got the book tour.’”
“I think there’s a great understanding by folks that” she’s continuing her time away from campaigning for others, Buckley added.
Clinton’s approach has strategic logic: The sooner she campaigns, the easier it will be for Republicans to sully her as a partisan. Her popularity as a public figure peaked during her time at State; avoiding the political trenches could help prolong that goodwill. Clinton’s poll numbers over the years have tended to drop the more partisan she has been seen as being.
Biden told Time magazine in February that he plans to help 150 Democratic candidates this year, and he’s made repeated visits to early presidential states. O’Malley, meanwhile, has been fundraising for party committees such as the Democratic Governors Association.
But for many in the party, Clinton, who can draw bigger crowds and more campaign dollars than almost anyone else besides her husband among Democrats, is the political Holy Grail.
That’s especially true in a midterm year in which Democrats are hoping to boost turnout among female voters.
“Anything Clinton in Pennsylvania is always in demand,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Party chairman Jim Burn. “I’ve heard from candidates or their campaigns about how honored they’d be to have the secretary or [Bill Clinton campaign]. … I know selfishly we would all love to see her back on the political trail.”
“We’ve reached out to her and will continue to do so,” said Ohio Democratic Party chairman Chris Redfern, adding that former Gov. Ted Strickland, a staunch Hillary Clinton ally, has been the liaison to her orbit.
“But indications from her staff are she’s not as engaged [right now]. … If Hillary Clinton wants to come to Ohio, it doesn’t matter, we would take every opportunity,” said Redfern, who called Clinton’s timetable entirely up to her and said he’d be happy if she came to the Buckeye State at her leisure.
But he conceded that “any chairman will say, the sooner the better. If it’s not this weekend, it’s not soon enough.”
Clinton’s no-politics-for-now stance comes as Clinton said this month that people should be focused on the midterms instead of speculating incessantly about 2016.
“We have an election coming up this year. … We ought to be paying attention to that, because that will set the parameters of what can or should be done,” Clinton said.
People involved in 2014 races were thrilled by the remark. They took it as a clear signal that Clinton recognizes the distraction that 2016 is for the party when it’s at risk of losing control of the Senate and additional seats in the House.
Officials with national committees and state parties who see President Barack Obama as an albatross for their candidates in November have begun — if only gingerly — to initiate conversations with associates of Clinton about getting on her calendar later this year. They don’t want to be seen as nudging or annoying her and aren’t expecting anything until after the summer, several people involved in the process said. The main point of contact is Huma Abedin, Clinton’s chief of staff.
“I said to [Hillary] that the second — not the minute, but the second — that she’s ready to engage, we’ll be excited,” Steve Israel, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman and congressman from New York, said in an interview. He said that he spoke with Bill Clinton about a month ago but hadn’t settled on which races the former president will be involved in.
“There’s not a single battleground district in America which wouldn’t want her engagement,” Israel added. “Not one.”
Unlike O’Malley and even Biden, Clinton has less of a need to use campaigning for other Democrats to introduce herself to voters in early states. But some of her allies privately worry she‘ll be blamed if she holds a limited number of events in the fall and Democrats do poorly on Election Day.
The time frame for Clinton’s book tour means no active campaigning until at least after the book tour, and possibly not until after Labor Day, people familiar with her plans say. For instance, when she attends a religious conference in Kentucky later this month, she has no plans to make a stop on behalf of Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat vying for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s seat.
Some Clinton allies privately point out that having her campaign for a candidate this far out from the election does not guarantee a free media boost. In most cases, the focus would be on Clinton, not the person she’s attempting to support.
Her allies point to how aggressively she threw herself into McAuliffe’s campaign for governor, late in the race, as an example of the type of timing that can be most effective.
People close to Clinton acknowledge that the back-to-back of her book tour followed by whatever Clinton does for other Democrats will be an indicator of how excited or engaged she is ahead of a potential campaign of her own.
Where Clinton could be most helpful before she appears at rallies is in hosting fundraisers for party committees and candidates, something she may still do before the fall.
In the meantime, having Bill Clinton campaign has been a more than palatable option for many people looking for some of the former first couple’s political potency. His spokesman, Matt McKenna, confirmed that Bill Clinton’s personal chief of staff, Tina Flournoy, has coordinated appearances including a Grimes fundraiser, a Senate Democratic retreat visit and other upcoming trips, including to the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Michigan.
Bill Clinton is also expected to host a DGA fundraiser, as well as one for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic fundraising sources said. (But there are limits to his time: McKenna waved off a claim last month by Lundergan Grimes’s father, Jerry Lundergan, that the former president would come whenever he called. The former president has a “very busy schedule,” McKenna said.) And Bill Clinton is slated to host an event next month for Maryland Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, who is locked in a competitive primary for governor.
There are races this year that are of particular interest to the Clintons. High on the list is the reelection campaign of Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, an old family friend who is among the most vulnerable Senate Democrats on the ballot this fall. There is also a string of female candidates who Hillary Clinton may decide to help, such as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire.
Sources said Clinton’s eventual appearances will likely be targeted based on where polling shows she helps the most. During a year when Democrats have a swath of Senate and governors’ races they’re hoping to keep competitive — and with issues specific to women like equal pay coming into play — she will remain a major commodity.
“If she is in fact running for president, whoever’s advising her, I think, is advising her perfectly,” said Florida-based fundraiser John Morgan, who said he hopes she will campaign extensively for Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Charlie Crist.