Democratic senators facing tough reelection fights distanced themselves Tuesday from Hillary Clinton after she said President Trump’s voters came from less productive parts of the country and were attracted by a backward-looking message.
“Those are kind of fighting words for me, because I’m partial to Missouri voters,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is running in a state Trump won by 19 points. “I think they were expressing their frustration with the status quo. I may not have agreed with their choice, but I certainly respect them. And I don’t think that’s the way you should talk about any voter, especially ones in my state.”
Clinton made the comments Saturday at a conference in Mumbai in response to a question about how Trump won the 2016 election. She noted that the parts of the country she carried produced more economic activity than the “middle” of the country won by Trump.
“I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward,” Clinton said. “And his whole campaign — ‘Make America Great Again’ — was looking backward. You know, you didn’t like black people getting rights, you don’t like women, you know, getting jobs, you don’t want, you know, to see that Indian American succeeding more than you are. Whatever your problem is, I’m going to solve it.”
At another point in the talk, Clinton, whose campaign slogan was “Stronger Together,” said that married white women voted for Trump because of “ongoing pressure to vote the way that your husband, your boss, your son, whoever, believes you should.”
Republican strategists have pounced on the comments in an effort to remind voters in key states of Clinton’s polarizing role in the cultural divide that helped lift the GOP to victory in 2016.
The Democratic path to regaining Senate control in 2018 depends on incumbents winning reelection this fall in 10 states where Trump beat Clinton. Democrats are also aiming to win open Republican seats in Tennessee and Arizona, two other states that voted for Trump, while also aiming to take out Republicans in several governors’ races.
“Joe Donnelly, Claire McCaskill and Jon Tester, all of these red-state Dems campaigned for Hillary and did everything they could to elect her over Trump,” said Katie Martin, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “As she continues to give these paid speeches throughout the world, I mean, the campaign ads write themselves.”
At the U.S. Capitol, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who is running in a state Trump won by nearly nine points, also made clear that he was unhappy with the comments. “I don’t really care what she said,” he told a reporter for the HuffPost. “I just think that that’s not helpful.”
The Ohio Republican Party tweeted his quote later in the afternoon, falsely claiming that Clinton had called Ohioans “backward” and adding that Brown “says he doesn’t care.”
The Republican Governors Association also released statements that falsely claimed Clinton had called Wisconsin “backward,” before noting that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dana Wachs had served as a delegate for Clinton at the 2016 Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Several Democratic strategists dismissed the potential impact of Clinton’s comments on the midterm races, noting that the senators now running for reelection in states such as Indiana, Montana, Missouri and West Virginia easily overperformed President Barack Obama’s own vote count in the 2012 election.
“If Republicans think that Hillary Clinton’s comments in India are going to help them win in November, they’re more desperate than I thought,” mused one senior Democratic Senate strategist. “I think this will have precisely zero effect.”
Jesse Ferguson, a former Clinton campaign spokesman who is now working on the Democratic midterm effort, maintained that Clinton would be a net asset for Democrats in the fall.
“Hillary Clinton speaking will always trigger the right wing that hates her, but she’s also a constant reminder that the majority of the country didn’t actually vote for the chaotic disaster we’re seeing on our TV every night,” he said.
Jim McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who has advised Trump and is working on the Missouri Senate race, said Clinton’s comments could help increase Republican enthusiasm, much like her comment during the campaign that some Trump supporters were “deplorables.”
But the effect, he added, would likely be limited. “It was different last time,” he said. “She was on the ballot.”
Like Trump, Clinton has lost popularity since the 2016 election in national polls.
In early December, Gallup found 36 percent of Americans viewed her favorably, the same percentage that approved of Trump’s presidential performance. The result marked a record low for Clinton in the Gallup poll, which has tracked her favorability since 1993. Just 5 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of independents had a favorable view of her.
Several studies of the 2016 election have found that Trump overperformed Clinton in economically struggling parts of the nation, a likely motivator for voters seeking change in the party control of the White House. Parts of the country that shifted their support from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 were also more likely to be negatively affected by globalization.
In Missouri, a super PAC focused on defeating McCaskill released a digital ad in January that repeatedly transformed Clinton’s face into McCaskill’s. “Hillary Clinton, Claire McCaskill, two of a kind, too liberal for Missouri,” the ad said.
At the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, McCaskill made clear that she was unhappy to be answering questions about Clinton’s comments. “Oh, come on,” she told the reporter who asked the question. “You’re killing me here.”
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.