The deluge of derision this weekend from Republicans responding to Hillary Clinton’s presidential launch is the start of a highly coordinated effort by national GOP leaders and conservative groups to effectively begin the general-election campaign against the likely Democratic nominee.
Acknowledging Clinton’s political strength, many Republican officials and strategists are determined to get a head start on attacking her record as secretary of state and highlighting what they see as her vulnerabilities.
The early onslaught — a battery of opposition research, snarky videos, and even an upcoming feature film — reflects Republicans’ desire to use a common opponent to unite their ranks, which have fractured as the GOP has stumbled in the past two presidential elections.
Clinton’s 2016 Republican challengers, some appearing Friday at the National Rifle Association’s convention in Tennessee, also assailed the Democratic frontrunner in speeches ahead of her entry, which her advisers said would come Sunday with a low-key rollout.
The barrage has a familiar feel. More than 14 years after Bill Clinton left the White House, Republicans are stepping back onto a battlefield in which they have toiled for decades, reviving Clinton controversies old and new as they seek to counter the formal return of a longtime adversary.
Reince Priebus, the combative chairman of the Republican National Committee who has become the party’s most prominent Clinton critic, is leading the blitz. In recent days, the RNC has heavily promoted its “Stop Hillary” initiative with a Web ad that raises questions about foreign donations to her family’s foundation and her use of a private email account at the State Department.
Priebus — who habitually describes Clinton as a cold, Nixonian liberal millionaire — has approved a six-figure advertising campaign targeting voters in swing states, a spokeswoman for the RNC said.
But a galaxy of other conservative power brokers, rabble-rousers and advocacy organizations are involved, including right-wing websites and super PACs that can accept millions of dollars in unlimited donations from the party’s biggest donors.
GOP consultant Roger Stone is finishing a book — tentatively titled “The Clintons’ War on Women” and expected out this summer — about the Clintons’ handling of episodes that have clouded Bill Clinton’s personal life.
David Bossie, president of Citizens United, is in pre-production on a sequel to “Hillary: The Movie,” an anti-Clinton film that was released before the 2008 campaign, when Hillary Clinton first sought the presidency.
Unlike the previous production, which focused on Clinton’s time in Arkansas and as First Lady, Bossie said the upcoming documentary will “dive into her time as secretary of state and then what I call Clinton Global Inc., the crony capitalism of her and her husband.”
Bruce Fein, a Republican attorney who served in the Reagan administration, is readying HillaryWatch.com, a partisan website that will catalogue Clinton’s policy positions and provide fodder for detractors.
And the Washington Free Beacon, a hard-charging online magazine that has sent reporters to pour through archives at the Clinton Presidential Library, is preparing a series of stories mixing investigative angles and scalding humor, according to its founder, Michael Goldfarb. One headline Thursday read, “It’s time for Hillary to Take a Stand on Hitler.”
“As long as there is breath in our bodies,” Goldfarb said, when asked whether the outlet is aggressively pursuing Clinton, calling her time at the State Department a “gold mine” for conservatives. “Imelda Marcos didn’t have this many shoes to drop.”
Sean Spicer, the RNC’s chief political adviser, said top Republicans decided over a year ago to build their Clinton strategy with an array of digital marketing tools and to start a general-election-style campaign as soon possible, rather than wait for the completion of the presidential primaries.
“The Democratic Party has chosen to coronate Clinton and we’ve been singularly focused on her. That doesn’t mean we’re taking our eye off the ball with respect to Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, or Lincoln Chafee,” Spicer said Saturday, referring to potential Democratic presidential candidates. “But it’s a question of math, and you’d have to be from another planet to think Lincoln Chaffee is going to be a viable contender.”
This week, reporters will be mailed flash drives, labeled “Clinton E-mail Files,” stocked with documents, videos and research material, Spicer said. Meanwhile, Priebus will be ubiquitous, jumping between rev-up-the-base chats on conservative radio and mainstream television networks.
Still, some Republicans are wary of conservative activists and operatives becoming overzealous with their barbs and potentially damaging the party’s standing with women.
“Republicans need to be careful about seeming condescending toward a female candidate when we talk about competence. If we’re not careful, it’ll bring out even more of the women vote for her and that’d be devastating,” Fein said.
“I’d advise to never talk about her age or her health. Rather, the focal point should be on her fitness to serve,” said Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster who advises male GOP candidates running against Democratic women.
“There probably will be an errant comment here or there by a bit player, of course forcing every Republican to say whether they disagree or agree,” she said. “Clinton’s allies will look at every comment through a gender lens.”
Speaking Friday at his organization’s gathering in Nashville, NRA executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre provided an example of how GOP leaders may struggle to keep control of the tone and approach. LaPierre sounded apocalyptic.
“Hillary Rodham Clinton will bring a permanent darkness of deceit and despair forced upon the American people to endure,” LaPierre said.
At the same event, announced and soon-to-be-announced Republican presidential candidates were less severe. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called Clinton an enabler of government dependence, while Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas, drew roars for prodding Clinton on gun rights.
“If Hillary Clinton is going to join with Barack Obama and the gun grabbers and come after our guns, then what I say is, ‘Come and take it,’” Cruz said.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush also got in a potshot during his NRA speech, blasting the “liberal, progressive worldview of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder.”
Perhaps the most bellicose operation within the conservative firmament is America Rising, an anti-Clinton super PAC that has issued a flurry of Freedom of Information Act requests for the State Department and devoted its youthful staff and Arlington, Virginia, war room to Clinton activities.
Colin Reed, America Rising’s executive director, said the group has trackers — video-camera-toting personnel who haunt the campaign trail searching for the next viral moment — already deployed in the early primary and caucus states, waiting for Clinton.
“In this 24-7 news cycle where everything moves quickly, it’s only a question of getting footage back and turning it around in real time,” Reed said. “Now that she’s in, she’ll be out and about and the mission of tracking will be easier than when she wasn’t doing many public events.”
Clinton has an army of defenders. Priorities USA Action, a super PAC managed by former Obama aides, is lining up pledges of support and hoping to eclipse the millions it spent on ads during the 2012 election; American Bridge is the Democratic counterpart to America Rising and employs its own trackers; liberal provocateur David Brock’s Correct the Record responds to Republicans’ Clinton accusations.
But anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who has long run a weekly meeting of conservative players in Washington, said the mood on the right is different this time around. In the 1990s, he recalled Republicans as “outraged” at the Clintons, in particular Bill. Now, there is less venting and a dutiful sensibility to their crusade.
“She bores me a little bit,” Norquist said. “People also realize that if you’re spitting mad when you make your case, you’re less likely convince.”