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Clinton 'wants to be helpful' to Democrats. Can she?

By Steve Peoples and David Klepper, Associated Press  |  Posted May 24th, 2018 @ 9:47am


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HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. (AP) — Hillary Clinton is not going away.

Standing on a convention stage Wednesday, the former Democratic presidential candidate cheered a primary election candidate from Georgia and endorsed one from New York, promising to be an active participant in red and blue states alike in the coming months.

"We're not going to win every fight — take it from me," Clinton said with a self-deprecating chuckle. "But if we stand together for the values we share, we will get there together."

More than 18 months after her election loss, Clinton remains a deeply divisive figure. Her approval ratings have hovered near record lows. Yet few Democrats can match her fundraising prowess and star power.

Clinton is eager to use her assets to help the Democratic Party seize control of Congress this fall, those close to her say. But not all in the party want her help.

Already active this midterm season, she recently endorsed Democratic candidates in New York, Michigan and Georgia. She helped raise roughly a half-million dollars for groups allied with her year-old political organization, Onward Together, on a single afternoon late last month. She is now weighing how aggressive to be on the campaign trail ahead of the November elections.

"I think she's an incredibly valuable asset," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who is working with Clinton on Onward Together. "Whether it's behind the scenes or in front of people, it's up to the individual candidates. She is still wanted in a number of states."

New York, a state she represented in the Senate, is one place she remains popular. The state features several competitive House races this fall, although Clinton's focus Wednesday was on the governor's race, where incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo faces a Democratic primary challenge from liberal activist and actress Cynthia Nixon.

Clinton earned warm applause as she took the stage at the state's Democratic convention. She endorsed Cuomo, repeatedly praising his accomplishments as governor while ignoring Nixon altogether.

Some liberals in the audience wanted a more diverse speaking program.

New York City Council member Jumaane Williams, who is challenging the state's lieutenant governor, said the party's left wing would have preferred an appearance by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, or a more unifying candidate. He worries Clinton's appearance demonstrates that Democrats haven't worked to heal the divisions highlighted in the 2016 presidential primary.

"We either haven't learned our lesson or we don't care," he said.

From the same convention stage, Clinton cheered the primary victory of Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Republicans on the ground in Georgia cheered Abrams' victory as well, suggesting she's too liberal to win the general election in November.

"I supported her in the primary and I look forward to supporting her campaign in the months to come," Clinton promised Wednesday.

Georgia Republicans are hoping Clinton follows through. Georgia-based Republican strategist Chip Lake noted that few Democrats have been more polarizing or motivating for the GOP's most passionate voters.

"We're going to start a GoFundMe account to pay for her expenses to come down here," Lake said. "We welcome her with open arms."

Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said it's too early to say which general election races she'll likely focus on in the coming months.

"The bottom line is that she wants to be helpful, so we'll be looking at how best to do that in the weeks and months to come," Merrill said.

As those decisions are made, Clinton is focused on Onward Together, which is working to raise money and strengthen the infrastructure for nearly a dozen grassroots political groups.

Clinton's effort is being run by a handful of longtime aides, among them political strategist Emmy Ruiz, chief of staff Huma Abedin and fundraiser Dennis Cheng.

Clinton and Dean hosted a private meeting of the Onward Together network in late April in midtown Manhattan. They encouraged the related organizations to coordinate their political activities while introducing them to top donors at the end of the day.

Dean said the afternoon gathering generated more than $500,000.

"People care about her, they trust her, and they will take her lead when it comes to where to invest," said one of the participants, Cristobal Alex, a former Clinton campaign staffer who now serves as president of the group Latino Victory.

The politics can be tricky. While she regularly gets standing ovations during public appearances, Gallup determined that Clinton's favorable ratings dipped to 36 percent in December, a new low for the longtime public official.

The GOP has already outlined a midterm messaging strategy trying to link vulnerable Democrats to Clinton regardless of how visible she is in the coming months.

But Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen, who leads the Senate Democrats' campaign arm, encouraged Clinton's involvement this midterm season as he addressed reporters at Thursday's Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

"We welcome support from everybody who wants to help, including Secretary Clinton and President Obama," Van Hollen said. "It's really important that we've got lots of individuals who offered to help candidates wherever they can be of help."

Yet Clinton has created headaches for red-state Democrats at times, most recently during a March appearance in India when she said Trump's campaign slogan "was looking backwards."

The national GOP quickly portrayed the comment as a personal attack against Trump's supporters as "backwards" and launched a series of digital ads linking Clinton to 10 Democratic Senate candidates running for re-election in states Trump carried.

Several vulnerable Senate Democrats distanced themselves from the comments. North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said Clinton can't go away "soon enough."

Some Democrats are looking to party leaders not named Clinton to play a leading role in the midterms.

Clinton is "too valuable to be quiet," said Scott Dworkin, co-founder of the recently formed Democratic Coalition. He said he'd prefer to see Obama, first lady Michelle Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden on the campaign trail again instead of Clinton.

"They have a different appeal," Dworkin said. "Right now, Hillary is still used as a tool to divide."

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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