Will Hillary Clinton Invade GOP Primary?

Meddling in the GOP primary may prove irresistible.

In her sights.

Photographer: Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton won't have a truly competitive Democratic primary for president. So in her spare time, she might instead opt to meddle in the high-stakes Republican primary. 

As the Republican contest takes shape over the coming months, candidates will stockpile money and negative research to unload on their rivals. It promises to be a fierce, internecine battle. At some point, someone in the sprawling Clinton world, or perhaps a wealthy liberal listening to an independent political consultant eager to play a role in the big game, will feel the pull of temptation. If Jeb Bush -- or Scott Walker -- is gaining momentum, why not slow him down, or even try to take him down, before he gets too close to the finish line?  

The super-PAC era is perfectly designed for intervention in an opposing party's primary. A generically-named political committee funded by anonymous donors could begin running ads in Iowa and other early states, making a case, for example, that Bush can't be trusted by conservatives. Or that Walker tells voters whatever they want to hear. The Clinton gang will be able to assert in unison -- possibly even in truth -- that it has nothing to do with such ads.

Such meddling has worked on the state level. For example, in the 2002 California gubernatorial race, the state's unpopular Democratic Governor Gray Davis poured millions into attacking the front-runner in the Republican primary, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who had a huge lead. Davis preferred to face the much more conservative Republican candidate, Bill Simon.

As the Christian Science Monitor reported before the primary:

The strategy is working, pollsters say, because Davis's ploy to pick off Riordan early, in the latter candidate's own primary, hinges on the fact that the state's Republican primary voting bloc has long been far more conservative than the broader Republican electorate that turns out in the general election. 

In the end, Riordan lost the primary and Davis beat Simon in the general. (I was a partner at a consulting firm advising Davis.) The Democrat was eventually recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Bush is a more disciplined and formidable candidate than Riordan. But the parallels are obvious, and given a campaign finance regime that now blesses unrestricted anonymous donations, it can be harder to trace attacks to their source.

Many conservative voters will have trouble embracing Bush's views on immigration and more. His Republican rivals will be eager to educate such voters about Bush's apostasy. But their resources are not infinite.

Democrats, meanwhile, probably won't be spending a whole lot of money on their presidential primary. There is nothing to prevent them from funding a primary attack on Bush to highlight what some conservatives deem a dire paucity of conservatism.

Intervening in an opposing party's primary can be a dicey proposition. When Democrats intervened in a 2009 Republican primary in New Jersey to try to save another unpopular incumbent, Governor Jon Corzine, the effort failed. Given the enormous attention the news media lavishes on presidential campaigns, even identifying a target for attack could backfire. "Anybody with a checkbook can run a tactic like that," said Democratic media consultant Doc Sweitzer, via e-mail. But if it signals to the Republican base that Democrats especially fear a particular candidate, "It could do more harm than good. The first rule of an independent expenditure is do no harm."

Of course, if a Democratic attack on Bush for being insufficiently conservative fails, it will probably only strengthen his candidacy. His relative moderation, a weakness in the Republican primary, becomes a strength in the general election.

Yet Republican Party donors will almost certainly fund attack ads on Clinton in swing states before primary votes are cast. Democrats, eager to respond, will have itchy trigger fingers. Several Democratic consultants acknowledged to me that the temptation to intervene, either in hopes of shaping the Republican outcome or merely damaging the likely Republican nominee, will be difficult -- if not impossible -- to resist.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net

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