SAN FRANCISCO — In this midterm election season, it may not be good to be a Democrat — but it is very good to be Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The presumptive Democratic front-runner for 2016 is among her party’s best assets to raise money and energize voters amid a gloomy election landscape for Democrats this fall, and she is campaigning hard even on behalf of apparent lost causes.
As a pair of events this week in California illustrated, Clinton’s efforts to raise money and get out the vote for Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates often dovetail with her own political agenda. Her first political season after stepping down as secretary of state has combined political boosterism for Democrats — including in key presidential states — with high-dollar fundraising and lucrative paid speeches.
The appearances give revealing clues as to what kind of candidate Clinton might be in two years — emphasizing women’s issues and striving to thread the needle between her hawkish, centrist history and the more liberal base that rejected her in favor of Barack Obama in 2008.
Here in San Francisco on Monday, Clinton gave a spirited call to arms to Democrats as she road-tested what is likely to be her economic message if she runs again. The November midterms, she said, come down “to a simple question: Who’s on your side?”
She sounded close to her party’s populist marrow when she decried the erosion of economic security for many working Americans, and a long way from her tone-deaf remark earlier this year about being “dead broke” when she and Bill Clinton left the White House in 2000.
“It’s time to elect leaders who will fight for everyone to get a fair shot at the American dream,” Hillary Clinton said, adding proudly that more than 100 women are running as Democratic candidates for Congress this year. “I can’t think of a better way to make Congress start working for American families again than electing every last one of them.”
Clinton was the headliner at a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) event billed as the “Ultimate Women’s Power Luncheon,” with ticket prices ranging from $500 a person to $32,400 per couple, for a total of $1.4 million raised. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was the undercard. Organizers said about 800 people attended.
Pelosi, who was speaker before Democrats lost the House in 2010, joked that while that made her the highest-ranking woman in U.S. politics, “I’d like to give up that title.”
If Clinton runs, Pelosi added, “she will win.”
On Monday night, Clinton was the big draw for an A-list Hollywood event hosted by DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and director Steven Spielberg, among others. The dinner, benefiting the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and other groups, was closed to the press. Tickets cost $32,500 per person — the federal limit for donations to a national party committee.
Clinton has campaigned in Colorado, Kentucky, Nevada, Michigan, New York, Florida and elsewhere in support of Democratic Senate, House and gubernatorial candidates in the past month. She also hosted a fundraiser for the DSCC at her Washington home Sept. 9, lent her name to an e-mail fundraising appeal for the DCCC on Sept. 22 and held numerous strategy discussions with party leaders this fall.
For the next two weeks until Election Day, she has announced appearances with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo in Rhode Island and Martha Coakley in Massachusetts, as well as for Senate incumbents Mark Udall in Colorado, Kay Hagan in North Carolina and Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire. Democrats said other appearances are likely, including in important presidential states Iowa and Pennsylvania.
Clinton’s busy itinerary sets her apart from another former U.S. senator — onetime foe and former boss President Obama — whose recent unpopularity has kept him sequestered in the deepest-blue districts during midterm season.
“I wouldn’t want to be a Democrat relying on Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi’s help 14 days before an election where the Hillary-Pelosi-Obama policies from the stalled economy to foreign policy and a general sense of chaos are the central theme,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.
Appearing with Pennsylvania Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf in Philadelphia two weeks ago, Clinton began articulating the themes of strengthening the middle class and reducing pay inequity for women that she returned to here in California.
Such campaign events serve to flex her own campaign network muscles while building support and indebtedness among national and state party Democrats who may have deserted her in 2008.
“Hillary Clinton’s work on behalf of candidates in the midterm fits multiple priorities,” including her own preparations for 2016, said Ange-Marie Hancock, a professor of political science and gender studies at the University of Southern California.
And for Democrats this year, Hancock said, “it is important because Clinton is incredibly popular among target voters who are less likely to turn out during midterm elections — young people, African American and Latino voters.”
On the stump, Clinton drops hints about her potential candidacy, usually with a joke, but keeps the focus on the candidates at hand. She has made no major news and kept her appearances gaffe-free after missteps during interviews promoting her memoir “Hard Choices” this summer.
In her speeches to interest groups, including one less than a week ago at a Silicon Valley tech conference, Clinton appears relaxed and confident. She didn’t flinch when a heckler yelled insults through a bullhorn as she addressed the American Academy of Pediatrics in San Diego last week, playing the event for a laugh. “You know, there are some people who miss important developmental stages,” she said with a smile to the doctors’ group.
Visiting a Denver coffee shop with Udall on Oct. 13, with news cameras in tow, Clinton playfully asked the barista about the artful depiction of a leaf in the foam of Udall’s espresso drink.
“Is that a marijuana plant?” she exclaimed with a loud laugh.
It wasn’t, but the easygoing exchange and knowing reference to Colorado’s marijuana legalization suggested a sure-footedness that Clinton sometimes lacked during staged events in 2008. Several people who know Clinton well have remarked that she seems more at ease in public now, more like the engaging, funny person they say they see when the cameras are off. It is a testament to the legendary power of the Clinton political machine that none of those people wanted to discuss her style on the record.
A Clinton aide said she is relying on the recommendations of the Democratic national and state committees and on the White House when choosing where to campaign. Much of her effort thus far has been on behalf of Senate candidates, as Democrats face the likelihood that they will lose their slim Senate majority in the Nov. 4 vote.
“She’s done some fundraising for the House side,” with more to come, the aide said, “but the focus has been on trying to hold the Senate. She’s a former senator, so it makes sense.”
As to whether such events have any spillover benefit for Clinton’s own potential candidacy, the aide demurred. He requested anonymity to discuss Clinton’s closely held schedule and priorities.
“The focus really is on 2014. There’s not an enormous amount of looking to the future,” the aide said. “It’s about what makes the most sense for now.”
Former president Bill Clinton is keeping a similarly busy midterm schedule, but Hillary Clinton’s position as a likely presidential candidate makes her an equal or even greater draw for money and party enthusiasm, several strategists and party officials said.
“Both are uniquely equipped to multiply money and turnout,” said DCCC Chairman Steve Israel, who said Clinton’s fundraiser for New York and New Jersey Democrats last month was “standing-room only.”
He dismissed the notion that her prominence as a drawing card puts a finger on the scale for her if she decides to run for president in a few months.
“The only downside to Hillary Clinton appearing at a DCCC fundraiser is that you need a room large enough,” Israel said in an interview. “It’s indisputable that many people want her to run, but even in the absence of her candidacy she’s still Hillary Clinton. She’s a historical figure, and one of the biggest draws in American politics.”