IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

2018 Campaign: Republicans are running against Hillary Clinton — again

Clinton isn't on the ballot this year, but one way or another, the GOP wants to make sure her presence is felt on the 2018 campaign trail.
Image: Hillary Clinton
Republicans just can't seem to quit Hillary Clinton.Lucy Nicholson / Reuters file

WASHINGTON — Republicans are running attack ads blasting Hillary Clinton as an out-of-touch elitist. Fox News prime time is blanketed with reports about Clinton investigations. Trump 2020 campaign rallies in key presidential swing states feature "lock her up!" chants.

If you follow campaign news, it may seem like the 2016 campaign never ended. And in at least one way for some Republicans, it hasn't: The GOP has gone negative on Clinton for more than 25 years — and they don't think her absence from the ballot is reason enough to stop now.

So far, at least three Republican candidates or groups have released ads over the past week slamming Clinton, in what amounts to an early midterms election-year beta test of her continued utility in firing up the conservative base.

A new spot for Rep. Evan Jenkins, one of the Republicans challenging Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, opens with recent comments Clinton made at a conference halfway around the world. President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign, she said last month in Mumbai, India, was all about looking "backwards," while she won big cities and other places that are "optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward."

It was a line guaranteed to strike a sour note in West Virginia, which voted for Trump over Clinton by more than 40 points.

"It's Hillary who's got it backwards," Jenkins says in the ad as undated images of urban riots flash on screen. "The big cities she won are the places flooding our state with heroin — where lawlessness, looting and liberalism rule."

In Missouri, Republican Attorney General Josh Hawley, who is running against Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, is airing an ad that shows a long clip of Clinton's "backwards" comments before concluding, "This is what Claire McCaskill and her 'president' think of you."

And a new digital ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee opens by telling viewers Clinton "called you deplorable," adding that "Florida won't forget" Sen. Bill Nelson's 2016 endorsement of her White House bid. It's one of several state-specific spots being released by the GOP's Senate campaign arm that ties vulnerable Senate Democratic incumbents to their party's most recent presidential nominee.

Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist and ad-maker, said the GOP's strategic bet is that shifting the focus back to Clinton "lets Republicans and Donald Trump pretend like the 2016 campaign is still going on."

"If I were advising Hillary Clinton," he added, "I would raise a gigantic s--- ton of money for people and stay out of the news."

Whatever Clinton does, that's unlikely to happen in at least one corner of the media: Conservative news outlets have never stopped covering her with election-year intensity.

Some 17 months after Election Day 2016, Fox News is still devotes roughly equal time to Trump and Clinton, according to an analysis by the liberal media watchdog Media Matters — despite the fact that one is now a private citizen, and the other president of the United States.

Red-state Democrats run for cover

Democratic campaign officials say the GOP's throw-back message reflects the lack of an effective new one in what promises to be a tough year for Republicans.

But candidates on the receiving end of the Clinton attacks aren't dismissing their potential potency. Some are laying low, avoiding the issue entirely: Of half a dozen red state Senate Democrats asked to comment for this article, only one responded for the record.

That lawmaker, Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, a Trump-state Democrat facing a bumpy road to re-election, replied to NBC's question about what he thought Clinton's 2018 role should be with a statement that didn't mention her and said the midterms weren't about "rehashing the tired political arguments of past elections."

Nelson, who's expected to face Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott in November, avoided giving The Tampa Bay Times a direct response about whether he would campaign with Clinton. "I'm not going to answer that," he told the paper. "Obviously when she was a candidate, I campaigned with her. That's like you asking me, 'Would I campaign with Robert Redford?' ... We'll take that up when we get there."

Still other Democrats facing re-election have been openly critical of Clinton.

"For those of us that are in states that Trump won, we would really appreciate if she would be more careful and show respect to every American voter and not just the ones who voted for her," McCaskill told MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt following Clinton's Mumbai comments.

The vulnerable Senate Democrats and their Republican opponents both seem to be looking at the same campaign-year math. Clinton’s favorability rating, rather than bouncing back after her loss and return to private life, seems to have declined still further: It hit a record low in December, according to Gallup, with just 36 percent of Americans viewing her positively and 61 percent viewing her negatively.

When Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who is up for re-election this year, was asked recently when she thought Clinton would disappear from politics, the vulnerable incumbent replied, "Not soon enough."

She may be waiting a while.

GOP 'desperation'

Clinton, who recently apologized for the Mumbai remark — conceding that her comments "upset people and can be misinterpreted" — nevertheless struck a defiant note last Thursday when asked for her response to critics who suggested she "go away."

"They never said that to any man who was not elected," she said at an event at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics. "Al Gore didn't stop talking about climate change. And I'm really glad that John Kerry went to the Senate and became an excellent secretary of state, and I'm really glad that John McCain kept speaking out and standing up and saying what he had to say and for heaven's sake — Mitt Romney is running for the Senate."

Clinton allies echo her point, saying it’s no coincidence that two women — Clinton and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. — have become the Republicans’ villains-in-chief in the post-Obama era.

"The leader of the Republican Party is a president who has broken every promise he made to the American people,” said Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill. "The GOP can’t run on issues so they resort to distraction and diversion, still pretending it’s 2016. I can imagine what would have led Secretary Clinton to believe the GOP looks backwards. They are scared by the activism among Democrats, especially women, and know they’re running out of runway."

Bob Shrum, a senior adviser on Kerry’s 2004 campaign, said Republicans are wasting money on ads attacking Clinton. "I think they're a measure of the desperation of the Republican Party, which is right now looking at a very tough midterm election," Shrum said.

Plenty of Democrats may share that view, but it remains to be seen how active Clinton will be for her party's candidates this year.

"We've gotten a lot of requests from committees and from candidates for various things, from events to fundraising, but we're working all that out now to figure out how she can be most helpful," Merrill said.

So far, Clinton has mostly stayed on the sidelines, though she did help raise money last year for gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey. She also made a rare pre-primary endorsement for J.B. Pritzker, a Chicago billionaire and longtime Clinton ally who just won the Democratic nomination for Illinois governor.

For now, Merrill said, Clinton is focused on expanding her new political nonprofit, Onward Together, which partners with groups that grew out of the anti-Trump "Resistance" movement. It distributed $1 million last year and plans to hold a gathering in New York City next month of its allied groups.

Back on the trail, some Democratic candidates in tight races say they'd welcome her help.

"I would be excited to have her support," said Laura Moser, one of two Democrats competing in a runoff election in Texas's 7th Congressional District outside of Houston, once a GOP stronghold but carried by Clinton in 2016. "Her loss is what propelled me to get involved in politics. ... I also think that no matter what happens, the Republicans will attack Democrats for things that have nothing to do with them."

Clinton's 2018 campaign trail may be a narrow one, winding through areas where her support is strongest. Her 2008 presidential campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, said she believed that Clinton could be "extremely helpful" to Democratic candidates, particularly in the 23 GOP-held House districts where she beat Trump in 2016. Most of those are in blue states like California, New York and New Jersey.

"I don't think she's going to spend a lot of time in the states that Trump won," Solis Doyle said. "She did not really resonate with those Rust Belt states."

But whether or not Clinton sets foot in those states this year, Republicans are likely to do their best to make her a continuing presence. And, as Clinton noted at Rutgers, so is she.

"I am really committed to speaking out," she said, "and doing what I can to have a voice in the debate in where our country is going."