5 Democrats Who Should Run Against Hillary Clinton

The former secretary of State could be vulnerable in a Democratic primary, but only if qualified candidates decide to challenge her.

Attorney general? Deval Patrick   Charlotte, NC - Deval Patrick on the floor of the Democratic National Convention.
©2012 Liz Lynch
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
July 2, 2014, 3:59 p.m.

It’s been re­mark­able to see how quickly the Demo­crat­ic Party has co­alesced around Hil­lary Clin­ton as its ex­pec­ted 2016 nom­in­ee, des­pite clear vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies she’s tele­graphed dur­ing her book tour. Clin­ton brings un­deni­able as­sets to the table — she’d be the first fe­male pres­id­ent, the Clin­ton brand is still strong, her fun­drais­ing is un­matched — but her re­cent ex­pos­ure on the book tour has demon­strated her polit­ic­al lim­it­a­tions as well.

I’ve out­lined some of them in past columns: She’s not a par­tic­u­larly good cam­paign­er; she’s skilled at stay­ing on mes­sage but tone-deaf to the way com­ments about her wealth could back­fire among an eco­nom­ic­ally anxious pub­lic. With the threat of ter­ror­ism rising and in­creased tur­bu­lence in Ukraine, Syr­ia, and Ir­aq, Clin­ton could find that her re­cord as sec­ret­ary of State is a ma­jor vul­ner­ab­il­ity in an elec­tion where for­eign policy is loom­ing as a ma­jor is­sue. Most im­port­ant, she tied her­self to Pres­id­ent Obama by ac­cept­ing his of­fer to run State, as­sum­ing that his coat­tails would be aw­fully valu­able down the road. Now, with Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ings tank­ing, scan­dals abound­ing, and a new Quin­nipi­ac poll show­ing a plur­al­ity of voters con­sider him the “worst pres­id­ent” since World War II, Clin­ton knows she needs to keep some dis­tance from Obama while main­tain­ing the ex­cite­ment of his base. That’s not a great place to be.

Her biggest as­set is the fact that the en­tire Demo­crat­ic Party in­fra­struc­ture is be­hind her, seem­ingly resigned to her vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies but hope­ful about her po­ten­tial. Even pro­gress­ives who are nervous about her Wall Street con­nec­tions are merely hop­ing to nudge her left­ward, and not ag­gress­ively chal­lenge her with an ac­tu­al can­did­ate. With a lackluster Demo­crat­ic bench, it’s hard to find many al­tern­at­ives even will­ing to throw their names out there. And let’s be clear: Former Montana Gov. Bri­an Sch­weitzer, whose loose lips would sink a cam­paign be­fore it launched, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont, throw­ing in his name as a protest can­did­ate, don’t qual­i­fy.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t cred­ible can­did­ates who, on pa­per, could mount a ser­i­ous chal­lenge. With anti-Wash­ing­ton sen­ti­ment run­ning high, this is a prom­ising op­por­tun­ity for an out­sider to run and sur­prise. True, they don’t seem to want to run, wheth­er from fear of the Clin­ton ma­chine, a de­sire to avoid chal­len­ging someone who might make his­tory, or simply an as­sump­tion that 2016 isn’t a great year for Demo­crats.

But the can­did­ates ex­ist. Here are some pro­spects who would nor­mally be touted for high­er of­fice but have ac­qui­esced to Hil­lary Clin­ton in the run-up to the 2016 elec­tion.

1. Sen. Tim Kaine of Vir­gin­ia

Kaine was one of the first Demo­crat­ic of­fi­cials to jump on the Obama band­wag­on, and he has a re­sume that nor­mally would be the envy of his fel­low pols: swing-state gov­ernor; Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee chair­man; sen­at­or elec­ted on Obama’s coat­tails against a former GOP pres­id­en­tial pro­spect, George Al­len. Kaine was on the very short list of po­ten­tial Obama run­ning mates. If this were the re­sume of a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate, it would vault him to the top of the list of 2016 front-run­ners.

But in­stead, Kaine took the un­usu­al step in May of en­dors­ing Clin­ton be­fore she even an­nounced her can­did­acy, per­haps angling for a Cab­in­et post over pur­su­ing any pos­sible na­tion­al am­bi­tions. Maybe be­ing a white man in the Demo­crat­ic Party is now a vul­ner­ab­il­ity in the Obama era, but Kaine cer­tainly could score chits as an early Obama sup­port­er who helped swing his state the pres­id­ent’s way. And his Mid­west­ern roots, au­then­t­ic per­son­al­ity (in sharp con­trast to Clin­ton), and ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence would all be strong selling points to a na­tion­al audi­ence.

2. Mas­sachu­setts Gov. Dev­al Patrick

One of the ob­vi­ous, yet un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated, factors in Obama’s up­set of Clin­ton was how power­ful a role race played in the 2008 pres­id­en­tial primar­ies. Clin­ton had close ties to the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an com­munity from her days in the White House, but once it be­came clear that Obama was a ser­i­ous chal­lenger, he over­whelm­ingly car­ried the black vote in nearly every primary state where it mattered.

Why couldn’t that dy­nam­ic re­peat it­self in 2016? Mas­sachu­setts Gov. Dev­al Patrick is leav­ing of­fice, and he is a close ally of Obama’s. (Obama even touted him as a pro­spect­ive can­did­ate.) Un­like the 2008 ver­sion of Obama, Patrick boasts ex­ec­ut­ive ex­per­i­ence as a two-term gov­ernor who had to deal with one of the biggest crises dur­ing the Obama pres­id­ency — the Bo­ston Mara­thon bomb­ings. Un­like Mitt Rom­ney be­fore launch­ing his first pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, Patrick scored sol­id ap­prov­al rat­ings in his last year in of­fice (53 per­cent in a Janu­ary 2014 MassINC poll).

Patrick re­cently said he wor­ries about how Clin­ton is be­ing viewed as the in­ev­it­able nom­in­ee, but he hasn’t made any moves of his own to sug­gest he’s run­ning. But if he could put a cred­ible team to­geth­er, he’d be a much more threat­en­ing chal­lenger than, say, Mary­land Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley.

3. Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill of Mis­souri

In a nor­mal year, a fe­male me­dia-savvy, red-state pro­sec­utor who de­fied the odds to win a second term in the Sen­ate would be at the top of many Demo­crat­ic wish lists. But like Kaine, this early Obama sup­port­er was one of the first elec­ted of­fi­cials to sign up with Clin­ton’s nas­cent cam­paign, tak­ing her­self out of the con­ver­sa­tion. Part of her motive was to in­gra­ti­ate her­self with Team Clin­ton, who placed Mc­Caaskill on Hil­lary’s “en­emies list” after she said she didn’t want her daugh­ter near the former pres­id­ent in a Meet the Press in­ter­view (as an Obama sur­rog­ate).

In­stead of suck­ing up to the Clin­tons, why not chal­lenge Hil­lary? Rep­res­ent­ing a pop­u­list state, Mc­Caskill would be well po­si­tioned to chal­lenge Clin­ton on her wealth, ties to cor­por­a­tions, and per­ceived dis­con­nect from the middle class. Plus, Mc­Caskill’s long-term pro­spects in the Sen­ate aren’t great, as­sum­ing she doesn’t face Todd Akin again in 2018.

4. Former Sen. Rus­sell Fein­gold of Wis­con­sin

Where have you gone, Russ Fein­gold? The former Wis­con­sin sen­at­or and cam­paign fin­ance re­form scold has vir­tu­ally dis­ap­peared from the polit­ic­al arena. Like Clin­ton, he’s now serving in the State De­part­ment — as the spe­cial en­voy for the Afric­an Great Lakes re­gion and the Demo­crat­ic Re­pub­lic of the Congo.

Like Eliza­beth War­ren, Fein­gold would be able to rally pro­gress­ives around his cam­paign but he could po­ten­tially have more ap­peal to male voters, a demo­graph­ic where the party has got­ten crushed in the Obama era. Un­like Clin­ton (and War­ren), Fein­gold took a lone stand for same-sex mar­riage in 2006, when most elec­ted Demo­crats op­posed such le­gis­la­tion. He’s been a long­time crit­ic of out­side groups’ cam­paign spend­ing, which has been a ral­ly­ing cry for lib­er­al Demo­crats in the age of the su­per PAC.

Fein­gold has al­ways marched to the beat of his own drum, and it would be hard to see him pre­vail­ing over the bet­ter-or­gan­ized Clin­ton. But he could per­suas­ively as­sert he was ahead of the curve on the is­sues an­im­at­ing today’s Demo­crat­ic Party, a power­ful ar­gu­ment for the grass­roots base. In­deed, he’d be in a situ­ation sim­il­ar to that of an­oth­er re­form-minded former Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or, Bill Brad­ley, who chal­lenged a sit­ting vice pres­id­ent and nearly won the New Hamp­shire primary.

5. Mis­souri Gov. Jay Nix­on

Win­ning two terms in an in­creas­ingly Re­pub­lic­an red state — he ran 9 points ahead of Obama in 2008 and 11 points ahead in 2012 — Nix­on is one of the most ac­com­plished Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors in the coun­try. The Kan­sas City Star‘s Steve Kraske dubbed Nix­on the “Teddy Roosevelt of Mis­souri — vig­or­ous, a cham­pi­on of the out­doors, con­stantly tour­ing all corners of the state more than any chief ex­ec­ut­ive in state his­tory.” He worked with Re­pub­lic­ans to pass com­pre­hens­ive jobs le­gis­la­tion, cut spend­ing, and passed ahead-of-the-curve le­gis­la­tion in­centiv­iz­ing col­lege gradu­ates to spe­cial­ize in high-de­mand health care fields. Nix­on won high praise for his hand­ling of the af­ter­math of the tor­nadoes that dev­ast­ated Joplin. And he’s won over some so­cial con­ser­vat­ives by al­low­ing re­stric­tions on late-term abor­tions and re­du­cing the age for res­id­ents to pur­chase a con­cealed-weapons per­mit. But he’s also ex­pan­ded Medi­caid and fo­cused on boost­ing spend­ing for edu­ca­tion.

In short, his po­s­i­tions on so­cial is­sues would prob­ably be un­ten­able in today’s Demo­crat­ic Party, where mod­er­ates are be­com­ing as ex­tinct as their coun­ter­parts in the Re­pub­lic­an Party. And Nix­on has shown no in­terest in na­tion­al of­fice, know­ing the near-in­sur­mount­able chal­lenges he’d face in a primary.

In 1992, when Demo­crats nom­in­ated a cent­rist South­ern gov­ernor as their pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee, it was a move born out of weak­ness, with party lead­ers des­per­ately seek­ing to mod­er­ate their im­age and ini­tially hold­ing little hope they could oust the sit­ting pres­id­ent. At the on­set of the primary, the field was wide open, with the party’s biggest-name con­tenders (Mario Cuomo, Al Gore) opt­ing not to run. The situ­ation could well be re­versed in 2016: Demo­crats act­ing like they’re in a stronger po­s­i­tion than the real­ity, opt­ing for a coron­a­tion in­stead of a con­tested primary, and ig­nor­ing the polit­ic­al lo­gic of nom­in­at­ing an elect­able mod­er­ate out­sider who can ex­pand the party’s co­ali­tion. In 1992’s more ideo­lo­gic­ally di­verse Demo­crat­ic Party, Nix­on would be at the top of many Demo­crat­ic wish lists. But we’re still stuck in Clin­ton­world.

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