Hillary and Bill Clinton Go Separate Ways for 2018 Midterm Elections
Posted May 21, 2018 3:57 p.m. EDT
For years they dominated the party, brandishing their powerful financial network and global fame to pick favorites for primary elections and lift Democrats even in deep-red states. They were viewed as a joint entity, with a shared name that was the most powerful brand in Democratic politics: the Clintons.
But in the 2018 election campaign, Hillary and Bill Clinton have veered in sharply different directions. Hillary Clinton appears determined to play at least a limited role in the midterms, bolstering longtime allies and raising money for Democrats in safely liberal areas. Her husband has been all but invisible.
And both have been far less conspicuous than in past election cycles, but for different reasons: Hillary Clinton faces distrust on the left, where she is seen as an avatar of the Democratic establishment, and raw enmity on the right. Bill Clinton has been largely sidelined amid new scrutiny of his past misconduct with women.
Hillary Clinton is expected to break her virtual hiatus from the campaign trail this week, when she will endorse Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York in a contested Democratic primary, her spokesman, Nick Merrill, confirmed — a move sure to enrage liberal activists seeking Cuomo’s ouster at the hands of Cynthia Nixon, the actress turned progressive insurgent. Hillary Clinton has also recorded an automated phone call endorsing Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic leader in the Georgia House, who is competing for the party’s nomination for governor Tuesday.
It is unclear whether Bill Clinton will be involved in either race.
Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat in 2016 delivered a blunt-force coda to the family’s run in electoral politics, and many Democrats are wary of seeing either of them re-engage. They worry that the Clinton name reeks of the past and fear that their unpopularity with conservative-leaning and independent voters could harm Democrats in close races. And among many younger and more liberal voters, the Clintons’ reputation for ideological centrism has little appeal.
President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has continued to level caustic attacks that have made the Clintons radioactive with Republicans. A Gallup poll in December found Hillary and Bill Clinton with their lowest favorability ratings in years.
So far, the couple have avoided high-profile special elections in Alabama, Georgia and Pennsylvania, and engaged sparingly in the off-year elections for governor in New Jersey and Virginia.
Even in their former political backyard — in Arkansas, where Bill Clinton was governor — there is scant demand for their help. In Little Rock, Arkansas, where on Tuesday there is a Democratic primary election for a Republican-held House seat the party covets, none of the four candidates running has reached out to seek the Clintons’ support, their campaigns said.
“I see the Clintons as a liability,” said Paul Spencer, a high school teacher running as a progressive in the Arkansas race. “They simply represent the old mindset of a Democratic Party that is going to continue to lose elections.”
Still, Hillary Clinton plainly maintains a following in the party and aims to help in corners of the country where she can. She introduced a political group, Onward Together, after the 2016 election, and has directed millions to liberal grass-roots organizations, like Indivisible and Swing Left. And she is in talks about campaigning for some Democratic candidates in the fall, likely in a cluster of House districts where she defeated Trump.
“We have to win back the Congress,” Hillary Clinton said during a seven-minute speech Friday in Washington, at a women’s leadership conference organized by the Democratic National Committee.
Her interventions for Cuomo and Abrams are rare steps for the former secretary of state, who has rebuffed other requests for help and signaled even to close allies that she would not meddle in primary elections.
The difference in her approach toward the two races underscores the delicacy of her role: In New York, where Hillary Clinton is popular and Cuomo needs help mainly with fellow Democrats, she intends to deliver her endorsement publicly, at a state party convention on Long Island. In Georgia, where Hillary Clinton’s imprimatur could harm Abrams in a general election, the endorsement will be delivered only through phone messages to Democratic voters — making the appeal imperceptible to everyone else.
But Clinton associates say the bulk of her activities will be in the fall.
Former Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California, a close ally who is on the board of Onward Together, said she expected Clinton to campaign later in the season and cited Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s re-election campaign in her home state as a likely choice.
“People she has supported for a long time, like Dianne Feinstein and others, know she’s with them,” Tauscher said.
Hillary Clinton’s husband appears far less welcome on the trail, with his unpopularity among Republicans compounded by new skepticism on the left about his treatment of women and allegations of sexual assault.
Bill Clinton is said to remain passionately angry about the 2016 election — more so than his wife — raising concerns that he could go wildly off message in campaign settings, several people who have spoken with Bill Clinton said.
Democrats have been keeping their distance: During the special election for Senate in Alabama in December, Doug Jones, the Democrat who won the race, considered enlisting Bill Clinton’s help before abandoning the idea as too risky. When Bill Clinton offered to campaign for Ralph Northam, now the governor of Virginia, Northam’s camp responded cautiously. Rather than headlining a public event, Clinton was urged to attend a fundraiser already scheduled in the Washington area — a suggestion that offended the former president, according to people briefed on the awkward exchange. The Northam and Clinton camps discussed a church visit in October but failed to agree on a date.
Yet Clinton appears eager to engage where he can, holding an event last fall with Phil Murphy, now the governor of New Jersey. This year, Mike Espy, Clinton’s former agriculture secretary who is running for the Senate in Mississippi, told a fellow Cabinet alumnus, Rodney Slater, that he was hoping to reach Clinton. Minutes later, Espy has told associates, his phone rang: It was the former president, who launched into a monologue advising Espy on campaign strategy and pledging to deliver fundraising help.
Angel Ureña, a spokesman for Bill Clinton, said the former president has been focused on nonpolitical projects, including the publication of a thriller next month. Noting that Clinton left office nearly two decades ago, Ureña called it “remarkable” that questions were being asked about his role in the midterms.
“Candidates from across the country have been in touch about him supporting their campaigns,” Ureña said. “But we’re not past primary season, and he’s focused on the work of his foundation and his book.”
Merrill, the spokesman for Hillary Clinton, said she had been largely focused on her new political group, and promised “there will be more to come.”
“While Republicans are hellbent on focusing on the past, she is focused on the future,” Merrill said. But Hillary Clinton has stirred frustration among Democrats who hope she plays a muted role in 2018. Last year, she chose to focus quite a bit on the past, revisiting the particulars of her 2016 defeat in a memoir, to the consternation of other Democrats. And in a series of public speeches, she has offered cutting criticism of American political culture.
During a visit to India in March, she seemed to suggest that many women who voted for Trump did so because of pressure from their husbands. This month, Hillary Clinton declared in New York that her support for capitalism had hurt her in 2016 — because so many Democrats are now socialists.
At least two Democratic women have nearly begged Hillary Clinton to stay away from their high-stakes red-state Senate races. After Hillary Clinton said in March that she won parts of America that are “moving forward,” unlike Trump-friendly areas, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., rebuked her.
“I don’t think that’s the way you should talk about any voter, especially ones in my state,” McCaskill said.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., was blunter when asked, on the radio, when Hillary Clinton might “ride off into the sunset.”
“Not soon enough,” she replied.
Associates of Clinton said she is aware of the political pressures that make her unwelcome in red states, and they do not expect her to charge into races where she is undesired. They generally anticipate she will focus on fundraising. Her bond with Democratic donors was on grand display last month: In late April, Hillary Clinton convened a gathering in New York for the liberal groups backed by Onward Together, meeting for hours with organizers and donors at an airy conference center overlooking the East River.
Clinton delivered an unsparing critique there of the Democratic Party’s political infrastructure: She said the left had failed to match Republicans’ enthusiasm for party-building and lamented what she called the poor state of Democrats’ electioneering machinery in 2016, according to several attendees.
“On the Democratic side, she talked about how we want to fall in love with the candidate and Republicans will fall in line,” said Cristóbal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, a group backed by Hillary Clinton’s organization.
But Alex said Clinton had not taken aim at the man who defeated her.
“I don’t remember her uttering the word ‘Trump,'” he said, “but so many others did and you couldn’t escape that context in this meeting.”