The Hillary Hoodie with the "Herculean H" logo goes for $38. Asphalt gray. One hundred percent cotton fleece. The mobile-phone cover features that badass photo of the former secretary of State in dark sunglasses looking intently at her phone. T-shirts and water bottles come in hip shades of fluorescent yellow, pink, and green.
"It was madness here over the holidays," said Seth Bringman, a spokesman for the Ready for Hillary super PAC, showing off a T-shirt-strewn storeroom that recalled an understaffed Gap store on Black Friday.
With 2013 sales of more than $350,000, the online store is one sign of the group's yearlong maturation from a shoestring gig run by a couple of junior-varsity Clinton staffers to a $4 million operation with the imprimatur of the Obama campaign.
Ready for Hillary claims to have an e-mail list that's bigger than Clinton's 2008 campaign database and more donors combined than major presidential super PACS like Crossroads, Restore our Future, Priorities USA, and American Bridge. The idea is to turn all of that over to Clinton, if and when she launches a presidential campaign.
A groundswell of support, especially among women hungry to make history in 2016, fueled Ready for Hillary's growth (70 percent of the donors are women). So did a recognition from longtime Clinton allies—who feared the group bestowed a potentially toxic whiff of inevitability—that the PAC could pose an even bigger liability if it didn't succeed. The decision by a handful of Obama's top operatives to join the bandwagon reflects the overwhelming perception within the Democratic establishment that Clinton will be the next nominee.
"She's the only candidate from either party that could lay the kind of groundwork that we're seeking," said Mitch Stewart, a top Obama strategist who is helping Ready for Hillary boost its online presence and connect with critical voter constituencies. "Not to take advantage of that enthusiasm would be gross malpractice."
The partnership with the Democratic consulting firm led by Stewart, the Obama campaign's battleground-states director, and Jeremy Bird, the national field director, was a major turning point for the group over the summer. So was the addition of the political director of the Clinton White House, Craig Smith, and a former Clinton campaign adviser, Tracy Sefl, as advisers.
With endorsements from prominent Democrats such as Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri—who backed Obama over Clinton in 2008—Ready for Hillary now wields an aura of legitimacy. The group is doubling its Arlington, Va., office space and employs 15 people.
Without begrudging its success, some Clinton allies privately grumble that the 1.7 million Facebook supporters and $4 million in donations produced by a year of hard work would be accomplished practically overnight once she raises her hand.
"There's been some worries about how effective or professional this group would be, but ultimately everybody is more focused on whether she's going to make that decision to run," said Democratic consultant Maria Cardona, who advised Clinton's 2008 campaign. "This is going to be a brutal campaign, so I am one of those who thinks there's no reason to rush that decision."
Ready for Hillary's grassroots and small-donor network represents only a portion of a campaign-in-waiting. It also encompasses Correct the Record, an arm of American Bridge that defends Clinton from GOP attacks; Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama group that is morphing into a pro-Clinton, big-donor fundraising machine; and the EMILY's List's "Madam President" campaign, which aims to build excitement around electing the first female president.
There's something slightly awkward about this draft-Clinton movement while there's a sitting, two-term vice president available with long-held designs on the Oval Office. It's almost as if Clinton were next in line, instead of Joe Biden.
The unusual state of play reflects Clinton's stratospheric celebrity as well as the no-respect sidekick role inevitably assigned to a vice president known more for making gaffes than closing deals, fairly or unfairly. Clinton came this close to the Democratic nomination. She's been first lady, a U.S. senator from New York, and secretary of State. She crushes every other potential Democratic candidate, including Biden, in the polls.
Perhaps most important, she is poised to make history. Biden started running for president more than two decades ago, but, the way Clinton supporters see it, women have been waiting hundreds of years for their turn.
"The work that we're doing right now with Ready for Hillary is specific to a Clinton candidacy and based on the enthusiasm about that, but if she decides not to run, we're building the groundwork and relationships that will be helpful regardless who the nominee is," Stewart said. "I don't feel this is a zero-sum game."
This article appears in the January 21, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.