(Updates with Warren’s comments and Ready for Warren group starting in sixth paragraph.)
By Annie Linskey
July 18 (Bloomberg) -- The official agenda at a Detroit gathering of thousands of Democrats was to organize for November’s congressional elections. Unofficially, they were plotting to find a primary candidate to take on Hillary Clinton.
The offenses committed by the frontrunner for the party’s 2016 presidential nomination range from cozying up to corporate interests and being soft on Wall Street to failing to defend the undocumented children crossing the U.S. southern border.
These activists, attending the Netroots Nation conference, are taking organizing cues from the small-government Tea Party wing of the Republican Party. They are trying to recruit challengers to push the debate in their direction and infiltrating party hierarchies in early presidential primary states, including Iowa and New Hampshire.
“There is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” said Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a Washington-based group aligned with Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. “There’s a rising populist tide in America.”
Unlike the Republicans, the power struggle inside the Democratic Party has remained largely below the surface because the rebellious wing hasn’t been able to recruit a high-profile politician to lead their cause.
Warren generates the most excitement among the Democratic rebels, and an organization seeking to draft her into the primary handed out hats and signs that read “Elizabeth Warren for President” before her keynote speech today.
Warren has said she won’t run in 2016 and has signed a letter urging Clinton to seek the nomination.
As she walked onto the stage, the crowd stood and waved signs and chanted “Run, Liz, Run.”
“Those with power fight to make sure that every rule tilts in their favor,” Warren said in her speech, which hit on the issues that many here care about, including student loan debt, an overhaul of immigration rules and tighter regulations on big banks. “That’s what we’re up against. That’s what democracy is up against.”
Then, to the riled-up crowd, she said: “We can whine about it. We can whimper about it. Or we can fight back.”
Another favorite of these activists is U.S. Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, who isn’t even registered as a Democrat. Other prospective candidates, such as Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, barely register in public polls.
Still, Green is using the three-day Netroots Nation conference -- which organizers estimated that 2,800 to 3,000 activists are attending -- to put a structure in place that could support a preferred candidate. Even if such an individual earns small support, he or she could force Clinton to talk about their issues, he said.
Discontent with Clinton has long simmered inside this wing of the party.
The former secretary of state addressed the group in 2007, in the run-up to her unsuccessful primary campaign against Barack Obama, and elicited boos and hisses from a panel of bloggers angry that she wouldn’t forgo political donations from lobbyists.
“She’s got a lot of issues to navigate before we line up behind her,” said Melissa Lindberg, 51, chairwoman of the Northside Illinois chapter of Democracy for America, at a kickoff party held at a Detroit bar. “A lot of people look at her with a lot of reservations.”
Several of those attending labeled as a “gaffe” Clinton’s assertion in a June 17 interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that the children illegally crossing the borders in Texas and California should be sent home.
“We have to send a clear message,” Clinton said. “Just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child should stay.”
New Hampshire state representative Marcia Moody said that comment is one of the reasons she won’t support Clinton.
“She is not a progressive,” said Moody, who is part of a newly formed caucus in the New Hampshire legislature aimed at promoting issues such as income inequality. “I don’t think she has it as part of her core beliefs.”
Others, including Fred and Vicky Koegel, hold her responsible for Bill Clinton’s policies as president. They said 16 manufacturing plants near their home in Dyer, Indiana, closed after the 1993 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, a pact between the U.S., Canada and Mexico that eliminated tariffs and other restrictions.
“How can we trust her?” said Fred Koegel, who works as a bricklayer. “Her husband pushed policies that killed American jobs.”
In their hometown, the Koegels have started an alternative local party organization -- the Tri-Town Democratic Club -- to recruit and run candidates.
“In every primary we have to run a progressive candidate,” said Koegel. “We’re 180 degrees from the Tea Party on issues, but at least they get involved. I give them credit for that.”
Clinton supporters are trying to win over her skeptics.
Ready for Hillary, a super-political action committee that is laying the groundwork for her expected candidacy, gave $10,000 to help finance the conference, sponsored a brunch yesterday for attendees, and plans to throw a party tonight.
Seth Bringman, a spokesman for Ready for Hillary, said the group brought 2,000 coffee mugs to hand out and attended the conference to “share our support for Hillary.”
“We’re not in the campaign phase yet,” Bringman said. “She’ll be able to talk about her record of fighting for the middle class.”
He said she has garnered support from across the spectrum of the Democratic Party, with almost 100,000 individual donors and 2.5 million supporters who provided their e-mail addresses to Ready for Hillary. In a Gallup poll last month, Clinton was viewed favorably by 90 percent of Democrats.
“Regular people who go to the polls will be extraordinarily excited by a Hillary Clinton run,” said Jim Kessler, senior vice president for policy at Third Way, a Washington-based organization that seeks areas where Democrats and Republicans can agree.
“She’s one of the premiere Democratic leaders of the last quarter century who has built up an incredible record and paid her dues,” Kessler said. “I wouldn’t mistake the lack of enthusiasm of some activists with the feeling throughout the country in support of her.”