What the Hillary Clinton campaign-in-waiting means for Republicans

Hillary Clinton hasn't decided whether or not to run for president in 2016 -- and won't for a few months (at least). But, as Politico's Maggie Haberman detailed in a terrific story Monday, there is already a massive shadow campaign being constructed for Clinton if she does decide to get into the race. From super PACs with differentiated tasks -- some raising money from big donors, others focused on grassroots name-gathering -- to several circles of advisers all plotting various aspects of the campaign, Clinton 2016 is happening.

FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2013 file photo, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. As the Obama era nears its final midterm elections, the campaign to succeed him has already begun: Prospective candidates on both sides have been quietly courting donors, taking steps to build an organization and making scouting trips to early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The official starting line, however, is likely a year away.  (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

FILE - In this Dec. 6, 2013 file photo, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. As the Obama era nears its final midterm elections, the campaign to succeed him has already begun: Prospective candidates on both sides have been quietly courting donors, taking steps to build an organization and making scouting trips to early voting states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. The official starting line, however, is likely a year away. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Add to those preparations Clinton's universal name recognition, her fundraising ability and the unlikely event she would face a serious (and money-draining) primary fight for the nomination and you have what looks like a Republican nightmare scenario when it comes to winning back the White House in 2016.

Or, maybe not. While there was widespread acceptance of the built-in advantages Clinton would bring to the race among the nearly a dozen GOP consultants we spoke to about the plans for a run by the former Secretary of State, there was also a widespread belief that those advantages were far from determinative.

"I think the concern for Republicans is if she has a year to talk directly to general election voters while they're beating each other up in a primary," said Carl Forti, a Republican strategist involved in a number of outside conservative groups. "But that's a void that outside groups can help fill and would have to fill. So you might see outside groups involved in the GOP primary but then a whole other set who are just focused on Hillary starting in January of 2015."

That process already appears to be underway with the formation of America Rising last spring -- an opposition research outlet staffed by Matt Rhoades, who managed Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign, as well as former Republican National Committee communications director Tim Miller and former RNC research director Joe Pounder. While America Rising doesn't focus exclusively on Clinton, there is more Clinton content than anything else on the group's Tumblr page and it's not hard to imagine America Rising working with American Crossroads and other more established conservative organizations to coordinate a carpet-bombing campaign against the former Secretary of State.

Others suggested that while a Clinton coronation poses challenges for the GOP, the party still badly needs what is expected to be a major tussle -- both strategically and policy-wise -- for its nomination. "There is no potential Republican candidate who has the name ID and built-in organization that Hillary has been able to establish over the years," conceded Terry Nelson, a Republican media consultant who, for a time, managed John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "Some will say that this fact makes our primary a negative.  But the reality is the opposite. We need a robust primary so that our eventual nominee will be strong enough to face off against her campaign."

Nelson's right -- especially when you consider the relative greenness of the presumed top tier of the race. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had never held any elected office of note until he won the governorship in 2009. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul was elected to his first office -- the Senate -- in 2010. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz spent six years as the state's solicitor general before being elected to the Senate in 2012. Add up all of the experience in elected office and on the national stage of those three men and it doesn't come close to rivaling Clinton's time in that spotlight.

Perhaps more important even than the Republican candidates acquiring the sort of experience on the campaign trail -- and with the national media -- they'll need to battle Clinton, there's also the fact that the upcoming 2016 primary is widely viewed within the party as the best chance to decide ongoing internal debate over what the party will be in the future. "I think the GOP challenge is much less about who the Democrats nominate and much more about whether or not our party will have the courage to do the things it has to do on policy to make our brand less hopelessly toxic among presidential year swing voters," said Mike Murphy, a Republican consultant who has framed the choice facing the party as between mathematicians and priests. "That is the hugely important win-or-lose-in-2016 driver we can determine; what the Democrats do or don’t do is not something we can control."

The assumption among Republicans is that while Clinton poses a major set of challenges to their eventual nominee, she also affords the GOP an opportunity that no other potential candidates does. Clinton -- and her husband -- have long been fundraising gold for Republicans. Another Clinton running for president allows Republicans to cast the race as the past versus the future. (Assuming they nominate one of the greener candidates mentioned above or the likes of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.)

What's more, the divisions within Clintonworld -- even in this pre-candidacy stage -- have long dogged Clinton and may not be solved if/when she runs again. "Historically, her inner circle hasn’t proved adept at managing a decentralized process," said Sara Fagen, a former Bush White House political director. "If they are having turf problems 3.5 years out, imagine the drama that could ensure 90 days out?"

In the end, a Clinton candidacy is viewed by Republicans as largely inevitable but not a cause for panic. At least not yet.

Fixbits:

The Senate confirmed Janet Yellen as the next Fed chair, 56-26.

The upper chamber also postponed a vote on extending unemployment insurance.

Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) is retiring.

Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.)  says Liz Cheney (R) called him briefly Monday to say she would end her campaign against him.

National Economic Council adviser Gene Sperling will stay on through most of February.

A new poll shows 55 percent of Americans say marijuana should be legal.

Georgia Republican Senate candidates will debate seven times.

Former Montana governor Brian Schweitzer (D) wants clemency for Edward Snowden.

The special election for Federal Housing Finance Agency head Mel Watt's old seat in North Carolina's 12th district won't take place until November.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) has $4.1 million in his reelection campaign account.

Steven Seagal for governor of Arizona?

Must-reads: 

"Income gap takes shape as central issue for both parties ahead of 2014 midterms" -- Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, Washington Post

"City's gun ordinance ruled unconstitutional by federal judge" -- Dahleen Glanton and Jason Meisner, Chicago Tribune

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