POLITICS: PennAve

Will focus on Hillary hurt Democrats in 2014?

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Senate,Democratic Party,Hillary Clinton,2014 Elections,2016 Elections,Campaigns,PennAve,Rebecca Berg,Minusextra,Magazine

Democrats might be Ready for Hillary -- but are they too ready?

As Hillary Clinton weighs a bid for president in 2016, the infrastructure for her campaign is already taking shape, without her lifting a finger. Ready for Hillary, a grassroots effort, is building a list of supporters nationwide, and Priorities U.S.A. Action, formerly a pro-Obama super PAC, is refashioning itself as a pro-Clinton group to attract big-money donors.

But, like a political black hole, her relatively invisible campaign forces might be sucking the light away from more pressing Democratic contests: the 2014 midterm elections.

Critically, a handful of those races will decide whether Democrats maintain their majority in the Senate, and consequently whether Republicans control both houses of Congress during President Obama's final two years in office. The specter of the latter outcome has spurred an all-hands-on-deck mentality among many within the party.

The early mania surrounding Clinton, however, threatens to distract from that.

“The focus of Democrats and every progressive group out there needs to be on keeping the Senate,” said one Democratic strategist. “That’s the No. 1 priority right now.”

“If there's attention on anything other than 2014,” the strategist added, “it's to the detriment of the Democratic Party.”

The convergence of attention and energy on Clinton at this early stage is unique. When Clinton laid the groundwork to run for president in 2008, such preparation did not get under way in earnest until after the preceding midterm elections.

There is no such waiting game this time. Priorities U.S.A. announced last month its new leadership structure, topped by former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina -- a first step toward restarting the group as a pro-Clinton fundraising behemoth.

The group has indicated it will urge donors to hold off on their biggest contributions until after the midterm elections, so as not to diminish Democrats’ fundraising totals in Senate and House races — but, at the same time, Priorities U.S.A. does not plan to bankroll any of those Democratic candidates, even those in key Senate races. Priorities U.S.A. also does not plan to finance ads to counter major attack-ad buys by conservative groups, such as Americans For Prosperity.

For the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee so far, Priorities U.S.A. “has not affected our ability to out-raise the [National Republican Senatorial Committee] or post strong numbers across the board,” said Justin Barasky, a committee spokesman.

But outside groups have a history of hobbling party committees' fundraising -- as has happened with Organizing for Action, the Obama campaign organization rejiggered to be generally pro-Democratic, which has taken a slice out of fundraising by the Democratic National Committee to the consternation of many within the party.

On the organizing side, however, the early enthusiasm for Clinton might be more of a boon than a bust. Ready For Hillary has amassed support from more than 2 million people so far and is laying plans to deploy that following in 2014.

“We’re going to encourage all of our supporters to volunteer, to get out and vote, to give small-dollar contributions to candidates, and get involved in every way possible,” said Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Ready for Hillary.

The push will only extend to specific contests, however, as Clinton herself decides to get involved, either by endorsing a candidate or actively campaigning for him.

Bringman compared the strategy to the group's involvement boosting two Democrats in 2013, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Although both were high-profile races, Ready for Hillary did not make its entrée into either one before Clinton did so.

“We will look to amplify the efforts that Hillary engages in for the midterms,” Bringman confirmed.

But, in a public acknowledgement of the weight of the midterm elections for Democrats, the group leaped to offer its support to Democratic Senate candidates, in an exchange on Twitter.

“To those who are #ReadyforHillary,” tweeted DSCC Executive Director Guy Cecil, “we've got another job to do before 2016.”

“Couldn't agree more,” Bringman tweeted back to Cecil. “Going to make sure our nearly 2M supporters are Ready for 2014!”

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