The ugly public spat was, perhaps, inevitable.
With Hillary Rodham Clinton more or less the only game in town for Democratic talent seeking a piece of the 2016 presidential race, the independent, campaign-like apparatus that has sprung up around her has become an uneasy grouping of longtime loyalists and former rivals. All are looking for a share of the money and prestige that comes as part of working on a presidential election.
That jockeying for position burst into public view this week when David Brock, a Clinton critic-turned-defender, dramatically resigned from the board of a Democratic super PAC following a newspaper report that he said rivals helped engineer to make him look like an inefficient manager of donors’ dollars. Just a few hours later, and after the intervention of two longtime Clinton allies, Brock issued a statement saying he’d consider coming back.
The spectacle was the sort of politics-as-blood-sport relished by some in Washington, but one with the potential for real consequences for the former secretary of state. If she becomes the Democratic nominee, Clinton will need a unified network of such outside groups that can help her official campaign compete with the collection of Republican-aligned outfits poised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep her out of the White House.
Who runs them, and who personally profits from doing so, needs to come second, said John Morgan, a Florida attorney and a top campaign donor for former President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.
“This can’t be about the consultants making money,” he said. “This has to be about Hillary Clinton being president.”
Clinton, who has kept a low profile in recent weeks, is being advised by several longtime aides and veterans of Obama’s two winning campaigns. Without much apparent competition for the party’s nomination, the former first lady and New York senator has signaled that she may wait until the summer to fully launch her bid.
In that vacuum, Democrats involved with super PACs and other such outside groups are taking on a larger role, already helping defend Clinton against Republicans and actively preparing for the campaign.
While outside groups, a catch-all term for any political organization that isn’t Clinton’s yet-to-launch official campaign, cannot coordinate activities with that eventual campaign, they will be crucial to providing technical know-how and deep pockets, while also conducting research, running TV ads and cultivating rank-and-file activists on Clinton’s behalf.
Jockeying for position inside the unofficial apparatus is underway, and with it comes tensions.
The latest rift emerged after The New York Times reported that two firms led by Brock, a powerful Democratic operative, had paid a fundraiser a 12.5 percent commission on large donations to his groups. The commissions led to more than $6 million in fees for the fundraiser and her staff during the past several years, the newspaper reported. While not illegal, that high commission was cash that went to a fundraising consultant — not to the groups’ stated mission — and it ran counter to the typical practice of paying a monthly retainer.
Calling the newspaper report a “political hit job” orchestrated by his rivals, Brock angrily resigned from the board of Priorities USA, a super PAC that expects to be a major outside advertising partner for Clinton in 2016. The group had expected Brock’s organizations to partner with Priorities, and Brock’s flare-up threatened to upend the longstanding plans to leave research and fact checking to his orbit.
Leaders of the group intervened, spoke with Brock and said they would take his concerns seriously. Brock said later that day he would consider rejoining the board, thus ending a standoff that played out publicly and invoked memories of the infighting that plagued Clinton’s campaign in 2008.
Priorities essentially sat out the 2014 elections to avoid competing for donations with Democrats running in the midterm elections. The group, which spent more than $70 million on the 2012 election, ended last year with nearly $500,000 in the bank and isn’t yet raising money.
“We have said from the very beginning that we wouldn’t start fundraising without a candidate, and that is still the case,” Jonathan Mantz, Priorities’ senior adviser for finance, said in a statement. “Make no mistake, we will have the resources we need to be effective and to work with our allies to help elect Hillary Clinton in 2016.”
Those resources will need to be deep, as Democrats expect to face a tsunami of Republican money. Groups backed by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch alone want to raise and spend almost $1 billion on elections in 2016, hoping to recapture the White House for the GOP.
Since Clinton may not launch her presidential bid until the summer, there could be months of sluggish or stalled fundraising, increasing the competition among the outside groups.
Morgan, for example, said former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, now the co-chair of Priorities, emailed him recently asking him to donate $25,000 to support Ready for Hillary, a separate super PAC promoting a future Clinton campaign. Morgan said he declined because he wanted to devote all of his fundraising energies to an official Clinton campaign, once she announces.
“I said to (former President Clinton), ‘If she runs and you want me to do a fundraiser … I’m all-in, just tell me when,'” Morgan said, describing a recent phone call with the former president.
By then, some Democrats say, the squabbling will have subsided.
“At the end of the day, when we have a candidate that we nominate, Democrats will be together,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and a Priorities board member, adding that Brock had done “terrific work” and said the kerfuffle would soon pass.
Elliott reported from Washington.
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