Have the Midterms Damaged the Clinton Franchise?


By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Originally posted November 5, 2014: Yes, it’s true: there are only 734 days remaining before the next presidential election, which happens to be November 8, 2016—for those of you already dreading the next big cycle of negative campaign ads. For now, most Americans (citizens in Louisiana are sadly exempt) can once again enjoy local television ads from car dealers and accident attorneys.

Almost—but not quite—lost in the hubbub and hue & cry over Tuesday’s election results: the Clintons, and what the GOP’s dramatic take-over of the U.S. Senate may portend for an almost certain presidential run by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Fleeing from what many analysts saw as contagiously bad job approval ratings and low popularity, Democrats avoided campaigning alongside President Barack Obama. Obama’s numbers were, to some at least, downright toxic—a not unheard of state-of-affairs for the sixth year of a two-term presidency. But to make matters worse for Democrats, GOP candidates were uniform in their strategy of defining this election as a referendum on Obama.

So instead, many Democrats in high profile races chose to co-opt the Clinton brand name. Hillary and Bill Clinton each campaigned alongside numerous Democratic candidates, and in some cases even participated in expensive, slick television ads. Such was the case in Florida, where gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist (once a Republican, now a Democrat) saw his political campaign supported by carefully crafted endorsements by former President Bill Clinton. So too was the strategy in Georgia, where Michelle Nunn was all-too-happy to have Hillary Clinton at her side at various campaign stops across the Peach State. Political coupling with the Clintons seemed a smart move: piggyback on the powerful coattails of the person certain to be the front-runner for 2016, and someone for whom—so far—there are no true rivals.

But in the end, as a few exit polls and independent polls have revealed, the Clinton franchise—however formidable, well-funded and well-oiled—had little impact on those races. And according to some eager GOP strategists and potential candidates, Hillary’s high-profile presence on the campaign trail may have caused self-inflicted damage to her presumed candidacy.

Tuesday’s election results brought dozens of defeats to the Democrats. In the GOP sweep, Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate, and raised their numerical advantage in the House to levels not seen since the end of World War II. Republicans won big in Kentucky (where the race was expected to be close), Maine, Montana, South Dakota, Colorado, Georgia, Arkansas, West Virginia, and a dozen other states. The GOP gained in nearly all arenas—from governorships to state legislatures, from top state posts to Congressional seats. The central narrative instantly evoked one basic question: how will President Obama adjust his tactics to accommodate what will no doubt be a difficult two years ahead?

Republicans have all along said that this midterm election would be a referendum on the President; Democrats have sought to scrupulously avoid any direct linkage, suggesting that this election was instead a referendum on Washington gridlock and partisanship.

But Kentucky’s Rand Paul has taken the turn of events to be a referendum on the future, more than the past. Paul suggests that voters are already expressing disapproval of Hillary Clinton as much as Obama.

Like many top Republicans—and some crestfallen Democrats—there is a sense that Hillary Clinton may have damaged her reputation by so publicly lending her name and support to so many losers on Election Night. One political strategist I spoke to suggested hubris elicited a sense that she could spread the power of the franchise too far and too thinly.

“Even a presumed candidate with as much clout and name-power as Hillary Clinton has to be careful,” this person told us (they asked not to be identified for the purposes of this article), “to not lend the name out to too many people, too freely, too loosely. It can be dangerous, and it can sully the name. Jeb [Bush] was careful with his support of Rick Scott, and with his support for Joni Ernst in Iowa. Hillary just handed it out like she was giving away Halloween candy. And you can bet the Republicans are going to hang that albatross around her neck for sure—Clinton backed a dozen losers.”

In fact, a few of Hillary’s candidates did win, notably Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania and Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire. But the list of those who won with the partial use of Clinton’s coattails is short indeed. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky posted an amusing set of images online called HillarysLosers, in which more than a dozen of her handpicked protégés are on display as they campaign alongside Clinton.

Potential GOP presidential candidates too spent lots of time campaigning for other 2014 candidates, especially in Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa was especially attractive for the leaders of both parties as it gave those politicians with eyes on 2016 the chance to do two things at once: build good karma and loyalty among fellow Republicans; and make oneself visible in a very important early caucus state. But what worked for Republicans like Chris Christie, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan and Mike Pence did not seem to work for Hillary Clinton. While the President spent 72 minutes gloomily explaining to the White House press corps why he will go on with business as usual, you can bet the top brains and strategists for Clinton were busy rewriting their playbook for 2016.

The problems for Hillary Clinton are suddenly more complex than they were only days ago. For one, Clinton must immediately and quickly uncouple her campaign’s narrative from the long list of Democrats who were defeated on Tuesday. Her longstanding projection of de facto winner is at stake, and unless she acts quickly, other Democrats may sense an opportunity (the Clinton strategy all along has been to position her non-candidacy in such a way as to frighten off the competition). Secondly, if rank and file Democratic voters sense that Hillary Clinton is NOT inevitable, it may further enable and empower intraparty opposition.

Lastly, Clinton has invited Republican candidates to link her directly to what they will define as the failed policies of Obama. It goes something like this: the 2014 elections were a referendum on Obama; Hillary Clinton offered public and unconditional support to dozens of Democrats who lost in that election; therefore Hillary Clinton must be synonymous with Barack Obama, which means that it was a referendum on Clinton as well. Republicans will also surely make the case that Clinton’s two biggest 2014 investments—supporting Alison Lundergan Grimes in her efforts to oust Senator Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, and backing Mark Pryor in Arkansas (Pryor lost to Republican Tom Cotton—were enormous and costly defeats for the Democratic Party. In McConnell’s case, the race was predicted to be close, but in fact became a lopsided affair even after millions of dollars had been spent on negative ads.

For his part, a notably downbeat President Obama explained to reporters on Wednesday that he will continue to conduct the business of his administration with no significant change in management style. The President, sounding mostly defiant, suggested the Americans were not unhappy with his performance as much as they were angry at a Washington mired in gridlock and petty bickering. Despite the persistent attempts of numerous reporters to gauge the President’s personal take on the election outcomes and the GOP wave of success, the chief executive evaded making a definitive political analysis, and refused to accept any responsibility for the debacle.

The President also said he did not have any immediate plans to make personnel changes at the White House.

– See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/ClintonFranchise2016.html#sthash.lpl1R6Sw.dpuf

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