A Hillary Clinton campaign operation to target prominent Republicans who may be primed to defect and support the Democratic presidential nominee is accelerating in the wake of Donald Trump’s repeated missteps and continued intra-party feuding.
Clinton and campaign chairman John Podesta already have been directly involved in reaching out to potential Republican recruits, as has Leslie Dach, a former Wal-Mart executive who held positions in the last two Democratic administrations and also is involved in contacting business leaders.
The effort is still in its early stages and not yet fully structured, but now is drawing more resources from Clinton’s staff, according to a campaign official who would only discuss the matter on condition of anonymity. The communications team has assigned staff to monitor news accounts of Republicans who say they cannot support Trump or may support Clinton. Some Republicans who’ve made the switch say they’ve been consulted for their views on how to make the outreach effective. The aide said the campaign expects to have a more formal operation up and running by next month, when voters begin paying closer attention to the general-election race.
The prospects for a meaningful Republicans for Hillary movement have exploded in the past week as Trump refused to endorse House Speaker Paul Ryan and other veteran Republican lawmakers facing primaries, suggested he might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and tangled with a respected retired Marine Corps general and the Muslim-American parents of a fallen war hero who spoke at the Democratic convention.
The most prominent defection so far has been Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chief Executive Officer Meg Whitman, who said she would back Clinton and help her raise money. Whitman was the Republican nominee for California governor in 2010 and is a longtime party fundraiser who was finance co-chair of Chris Christie’s bid for the presidential nomination earlier this year. She told the New York Times that Clinton had contacted her a month ago.
Sally Bradshaw, a former adviser to Jeb Bush, and former Christie aide Maria Comella also announced their support of Clinton this week, as did retiring Representative Richard Hanna, from upstate New York, who was the first sitting Republican member of Congress to endorse Clinton.
The target list has expanded, with Clinton’s team and Republicans who’ve aligned with the former secretary of state seeking out former Republican officeholders, spouses, advisers, and political consultants. The idea, according to the campaign official, is to create a “permission structure” for rank-and-file voters by showing them locally and nationally respected Republicans who say crossing over for at least at the top of the ticket is the right move for the country.
President Barack Obama added his own voice to the appeal on Tuesday, urging Republican leaders in Congress to repudiate Trump and rescind their endorsements. That, though, may make it harder for Republican officeholders who, while they may want to back away from Trump, don’t want to be seen by the party’s base as aligning with the Democratic president.
“This is a real effort, and they have the resources and the manpower and determination to do it,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican strategist who opposes Trump but hasn't endorsed Clinton. “She has been given an enormous gift by Trump.”
Priorities USA Action, the largest super-PAC backing Clinton, plans to raise and spend $200 million, largely on advertising. Many of its ads targeted at independents and Republicans, including one released Wednesday featuring clips of Republicans Mitt Romney, the party's 2012 presidential nominee, and Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, who sought the nomination this year, expressing concerns about Trump’s fitness to serve as president.
The campaign will have to find a delicate balance in its recruitment attempts. A Republicans for Hillary group run by the Clinton campaign could be an effective way to organize support but could backfire, said Jennifer Pierotti Lim, founder of the D.C.-based Republican Women for Hillary. “Get involved with other Republicans or go directly to the Clinton campaign? That would turn a lot of Republicans off,” Lim said.
Wilson sees four kinds of Republicans who could be “profitable places for her to prospect” for votes.
“The first group are foreign-policy Republicans who believe Trump may be an existential threat to our country,” he said. “The second group are Republicans who are worried he is going to be an economic disaster. And the third group are what I call the ‘decency Republicans’ who are appalled by his treatment of the Khan family, of the disabled reporter, and of his sort of sadistic and juvenile behavior towards people.”
The fourth group is Republican officeholders currently facing primary challenges, who are “sort of pinned down right now” but once their primaries are over may consider supporting Clinton or at least make clear they don’t support Trump. “They’ll say, ‘I’m a Florida Republican’ or ‘I’m a Wisconsin Republican; I'm not a Donald Trump Republican,’” he said.
Clinton’s campaign began exploring an outreach effort to Republican business leaders, national-security experts, and women early during primary season, as Trump emerged as her most likely general-election rival and his positions on trade, his tax returns, Carly Fiorina’s face, and Megyn Kelly’s “blood coming out of her wherever” began to accumulate.
The campaign’s strategy was to portray Trump as outside the Republican mainstream. That’s a reversal from the Democratic Party's previous message—that Trump represents the outgrowth of longstanding Republican positions—and that caused tension between the campaign and some at the Democratic National Committee.
“We can’t give down-ballot Republicans such an easy out,” then-DNC communications director Luis Miranda wrote in a May e-mail that was part of a trove of hacked messages that were published last month by WikiLeaks. “We can force them to own Trump and damage them more by pointing out that they’re just as bad on specific policies, make them uncomfortable where he’s particularly egregious.”
Former New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, said the Democratic convention and Trump’s responses were an effective tool to attract Republicans and independents.
“People have got to start realizing the seriousness of the choice that we have ahead of us,” said Whitman, who’s of no relation to the HP executive. If Trump continues on the same course, “more Republicans will feel more comfortable in saying, ‘I am going with Hillary.’”
Whitman, though, is still holding off, considering the Libertarian ticket in addition to Clinton. Whitman hasn’t been a target for outreach from Clinton or her staff, though New Jersey Senator Cory Booker has urged her to endorse Clinton.
“I’m just not there yet,” she said, indicating that she’s deciding between Clinton and the Libertarian ticket, though she disagrees with the party’s positions on the role of government. “The e-mail thing doesn't seem to be an issue. My concern is that there's another shoe to drop with the Clinton Foundation.”