The Republican takeover of the Senate could be good news for at least one Democrat: Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Clinton campaigned hard this fall for Democrats and spent much of her time trying to preserve a Democratic majority in the Senate — an effort that failed dramatically in Tuesday’s GOP midterm rout.
But many Democratic strategists said the switch to Republican control may have a silver lining for Clinton, helping her better define herself as she shapes a potential 2016 presidential campaign. By providing a convenient foil for Clinton and other Democrats, a GOP-run Congress would make it less imperative for Clinton to highlight her differences with President Obama, these strategists said.
Obama’s damaged, lame-duck condition also makes Clinton the strongest Democrat left standing.
A Republican Senate is likely to “spend a lot of time trying to repeal some of the progress made in the Obama administration,” Democratic strategist Erik Smith said. “That would be a great situation for her, because she could both make the case against the Republicans while currying favor with the Obama base.”
But Republican adviser Stuart Stevens, the chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, said the notion that an all-Republican Congress is good for Clinton wouldn’t bear out.
“I don’t buy it,” he said, because the new Republican Congress is going to pass legislation, as promised, that Obama will then veto, and that won’t leave Clinton much running room.
“What’s she going to say, ‘I would have vetoed it, too, so I’m going to be the third term of Barack Obama?’ ”
Two years before the 2016 presidential election, Clinton is in the enviable but precarious position of being the most popular, most famous and most scrutinized contender for a campaign that everyone assumes she’s already running in stealth mode.
But first, she will have to overcome the short-term damage from Tuesday’s Democratic losses. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a likely presidential candidate in 2016, said on CNN on Wednesday that the midterm election was “not only a repudiation of the president, but I think really a repudiation of Hillary Clinton.”
The midterm vote holds lessons for Clinton about which issues most resonate with the grumpy 2014 electorate and which are likely to matter in an election that is still far off, according to political advisers and analysts who are close to the former secretary of state or are watching her closely. Most agreed that she must fashion a way to run against Washington — a task made easier with a GOP Congress.
The losses also raise doubts about whether the “Obama coalition” of youth and minorities will turn out for anyone but Obama. No candidate, including Clinton, is likely to win nearly as large a share of the black and Hispanic vote as Obama did in 2008 or 2012. But Clinton probably would do better among whites in many states, while possibly expanding Democratic margins among women.
Democrats are hoping the new Republican Senate majority will quickly annoy voters by overreaching or contributing to Washington’s political paralysis. That environment could benefit other potential Democratic 2016 candidates, but perhaps Clinton most of all, strategists and backers said.
“Her supporters remain as strong as ever, maybe even more so today,” said Tracy Sefl, a Democrat campaign veteran who is advising the independent pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary. “We’ll continue to be standing by in ever-growing numbers, ready to help her.”
In the week before the election, Clinton stumped for Senate candidates in states including Iowa and New Hampshire, which will hold the first nominating contests in 2016. Bruce Braley, the Democratic candidate in Iowa, went down to defeat Tuesday. But one of the few bright spots for Democrats came in New Hampshire, where Sen. Jeanne Shaheen held onto her seat.
Clinton spent her final day of campaigning with Shaheen in the state she won in 2008 presidential primary after losing badly to Barack Obama in Iowa. Then, as now, Clinton was considered the heir-apparent to the Democratic mantle — a whiff of coronation that did not serve her well.
“There’s a lot to be learned from failure. She wasn’t elected, as we all know,” said Madison Waters, 22, who came to a rally in Nashua, N.H., on Sunday to see Clinton. “I think she was great then, but she’s even better now. She’s sharper and more focused.”
As she did throughout her energetic speaking schedule on behalf of Democrats this year, Clinton sprinkled her Nashua stump speech with personal asides and a long view to the future.
“When you look 20, 25 years out and you think, ‘What’s the country going to be like when she’s starting her adult life? What’s the world going to be like?’ It really does focus your mind on what’s important,” Clinton said, referring to Charlotte, her newborn granddaughter.
She added that she and Bill Clinton “were raised to believe that if you work hard, the American dream was in your reach. You should not have to be the grandchild of a governor, or a senator, or a former secretary of state, or a former president, to believe that the American dream is in your reach.”
Those themes of in-this-together populism and middle-class promise seem sure to be a central part of Hillary Clinton’s platform if she runs.
“When she talks about her grandchild, that makes her very personable,” Kevin Smith, 51, said at the Nashua rally. He said he supported Obama in 2008 but is likely to support Clinton now.
The most recent pre-election polling puts Clinton far ahead of potential Republican opponents. The numbers in the latest Washington Post-ABC News survey also show that Clinton remains a polarizing, if nearly universally recognizable, political figure.
When asked whether she would make a good president, 51 percent said yes and 41 percent said no. Just 8 percent said they had no opinion.
Republicans fare less well. For former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the numbers were 26 percent favorable, 51 percent unfavorable and 23 percent with no opinion. For New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, 24 percent said he’d be a good president, 46 percent said he would not and 30 percent had no opinion.
Bill Burton, a former Obama campaign strategist, said the abysmal public opinion of Washington in general may be more important in shaping Clinton’s next platform than the new Republican Senate majority.
“The reason people are so dissatisfied across the country is that it looks like people in Washington are behaving like children, and everybody pays a price for that,” he said.
With little room to run as an “outsider,” Clinton probably would tune her message to those of her Republican rivals, Burton said.
“Her foil has really got to be the Republicans running against her,” he said. “It’s going to be really easy to run against what Rand Paul and [Sen. Marco] Rubio and those other guys are saying.”
Paul is already working to contrast himself with Clinton. As the scope of the Republican wave became clear late Tuesday, he posted pictures of her and losing Democratic candidates on Twitter with the hashtag, #HillarysLosers.
Also damaged Tuesday was Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), a long-shot presidential aspirant whose handpicked successor, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, got trounced by Republican businessman Larry Hogan.
Many Democrats want Clinton to put off any head-to-head combat for several months. A few advisers, however, have urged her to defy convention with a fast announcement in the wake of the midterm election.
Clinton appears unhurried. She has said she will decide on a candidacy after Jan. 1.
Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, who is not advising Clinton, said she can afford to wait.
“There’s plenty of time,” he said. “The reasons that some people accelerate the timetable is that they want the money” available to official candidates, he said.
Clinton headlined Democratic events that raked in millions of dollars for others this year and would be expected to break fundraising records for a general election. Paul Begala, a Clinton White House adviser who remains close to both Clintons, said the couple put political “money in the bank” with heavy schedules promoting Democrats nationwide this year.
“These two are the most popular Democrats in America, and they put that popularity on the line for folks in trouble in a bad year,” Begala said. “I am quite sure all this campaigning will put a sizable dent in Hillary’s post-State Department stratospheric poll numbers. I am also sure she knew that going into this effort, and decided it’s worth it to sacrifice some of her popularity to help candidates she believes in.”
Clinton said almost nothing about her four years as secretary of state while campaigning for Democrats this fall, perhaps in part because it might remind liberal voters of her hawkish foreign policy leanings.
The post-midterm season will allow Clinton to address national security issues more directly, and probably to draw sharper comparisons with Obama. Clinton has gone public with her disagreement with Obama over his first-term reluctance to arm the Syrian rebels, and is expected to air other criticisms if she becomes a candidate.
That sets up a potential candidacy very much in the centrist Democratic mode that Clinton naturally inhabits, several strategists said: family checkbook issues, job and worker security, women’s pay and health-care equality, plus a muscular projection of American strength abroad.
That approach could benefit from the sharp contrast with a GOP-held Congress, allowing Clinton to cast herself as an agent of change and a former senator who successfully worked across party lines.
“The issues terrain in this election looks like it’s going to be a very good fit for a Clinton candidacy,” Burton said. “Given her experience with foreign policy and national security, and the economic issues, I think that she is particularly well-suited for this moment.”
Of course, that’s what a lot of people thought eight years ago, as Clinton readied her 2008 campaign. Her undoing had less to do with her platform than with her performance as a candidate.
She would be a better candidate now, Burton said. “It’s rare that you see someone who runs for president more than once who doesn’t get better,” he said. “I can’t think of anybody who’s gotten worse.”
Jose DelReal in Nashua, N.H., and Peyton M. Craighill in Washington contributed to this report.