Hillary Clinton, the presumed Democratic presidential frontrunner, has plenty of political baggage and is eminently beatable, Republicans insist. But that brash confidence masks quiet trepidation. Republican officials and party strategists concede that the former first lady, ex-U.S. senator from New York and one-time secretary of State appeals to voters -- that she is a formidable politician who will likely field a well-oiled campaign operation long before the GOP selects its presidential nominee.
Concern about Clinton is framing many GOP officials’ approach to the 2016 contest and was much on the minds of those who gathered in Washington this week for the party’s annual winter meeting. Indeed, the GOP’s ongoing overhaul of voter turnout machinery — and the rules changes governing its presidential primary process — are being conducted with an eye toward helping the eventual GOP nominee overcome the Clinton juggernaut.
“It’s a big concern, that’s one of the reasons we’re all talking about it,” said Saul Anuzis, a Republican operative and former state party chairman in Michigan. “If Hillary were to decide today that she was going to run for president, she could have a four-year race while we’re still trying to get ready for one.”
Clinton has yet to reveal her 2016 plans, and other top Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, are considering White House bids of the their own. But many of President Obama's allies, and much of the Democratic political establishment, have been lining up behind Clinton. Although some Democrats are threatening to challenge her, political observers generally expect Clinton to have a clear path to the nomination if she runs.
That expectation, combined with the former secretary of State’s political muscle, is motivating the Republican Party’s attempt to exert greater control over its own presidential nominating process.
Rule changes easily approved by RNC members Friday are intended to shorten the nominating process to protect the party's standard-bearer from additional political damage. In 2012, Mitt Romney endured a bruising primary and did not secure the nomination until April. That provided Obama with time to ramp up his re-election campaign.
Some of the new rules are a reaction to what occurred in 2012 and a determination to avoid repeating the scenario in 2016. But they are also due to the Republicans’ anticipation that their nominee will face Clinton in the next election, and that she will enjoy many of the same advantages of incumbency that helped propel Obama to re-election. For state and national GOP operatives in particular, the Clinton factor looms large.
Ron Kaufman, a veteran Republican operative and Republican National Committee member from Massachusetts, said the GOP has no choice but to prepare for a fight against Clinton, given her political strength and support in the Democratic Party. Public polls suggest that Clinton has the backing of Democratic voters, while much of the Democratic Party’s machinery — both official and the outside groups — is preparing for 2016 under the assumption that she will be the nominee.
“She won’t have a vigorous primary campaign,” said New Hampshire political operative and RNC member Stephen Duprey. “We will.”
However, Republicans are focused on more than Clinton and 2016.
The Republican Party's overhaul of its ground game and digital operations will help create a permanent campaign apparatus available to all Republican candidates. To that end, GOP Chairman Reince Priebus has said that helping Republicans hold their House majority while recapturing the Senate in the 2014 midterm elections is a priority.
The party’s long-term strategy involves re-imagining the RNC as an organization that doesn’t build up and tear down every four years along with the presidential campaigns. For some Republican officials, this aspect of the GOP’s new strategy is just as important as preparing for Clinton in 2016.
“There’s also a lot of other races and sort of the need to rebuild the organization and infrastructure of the party throughout the nation,” Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call said.