Republicans Fear Clinton in 2016

Republican leaders plotted their party's political comeback on Thursday with plans to court minority voters and modernize their political operations. But some wondered if one person could make it all for naught: Hillary Clinton.

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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton prepares to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 23, 2013.

HOLLYWOOD — Republican leaders plotted their party’s political comeback on Thursday with plans to court minority voters and modernize their political operations. But some wondered if one person could make it all for naught: Hillary Clinton.

As attendees of the Republican National Committee’s spring meeting debated party rules and a refurbished GOP brand capable of winning back the White House, more than two dozen operatives and officials expressed worry that none of their party’s potential 2016 candidates can take her down.

One early primary state RNC member put it simply: “If she gets in, we’re toast.”

To be sure, Clinton enjoyed a similar sense of inevitability in 2005, but Republicans say she looks more formidable this time around. “We thought we could beat her [in 2008] because she was seen as bitter and unlikeable — and that’s what Obama proved,” said one Republican operative at the meeting. But Clinton finished her tenure as Secretary of State with stratospheric approval ratings, has added four years of Cabinet-level foreign policy making to her resume, and appears far less likely to face a strong 2016 primary challenge like the one Obama mounted in 2007 and 2008. “We’re hoping she doesn’t run, because if she does, she’ll win,” said the same operative.

The Clinton fears have Republicans gearing up early for the 2016 campaign. America Rising, the new GOP super PAC founded by former RNC and Romney aides, has already begun digging up opposition research on Clinton, along with other potential Democratic candidates.

Overhearing discussions about Clinton in the hallway outside the RNC meeting, Jorge Landivar, a Ron Paul-backing delegate to the 2012 Republican convention from Texas, chimed in: “All the polls say she will destroy anyone that we put up — it’s [f—ng] terrifying.”  National polling from Quinnipiac University finds that Clinton, the most popular national political figure, would defeat  New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie 45 – 37 percent; Florida Sen. Marco Rubio 50 – 34 percent and Rep. Paul Ryan 50 – 38 percent.

Ron Kaufman, the RNC committeeman from Massachusetts and a senior Romney campaign advisor, acknowledged that Clinton looks as powerful as a sitting president. But he cautioned Republicans to remember how quickly the political winds can shift. “Right now she is the closest thing you’ll get to an incumbent in an open race,” said Kaufman, who served as George H. W. Bush’s White House political director. “But at this time in the cycle, Bush 41 was unbeatable.”

Indeed, Republicans here took some hope in Clinton’s stunning 2008 collapse, when her political machine seemed to fall apart under the pressure of Obama’s challenge. Some suggested she was ill-served by top advisors whom they hope will return to her side with unintended results. “I hope she picks Mark Penn”–her longtime pollster and close advisor–“to run her campaign again,” said one swing-state state chair who was loath to share his defeatist attitude publicly. “Because even some Republicans will give her a second chance.”

On the record, Republican leaders are more on message. Rhode Island committeeman Steve Frias argued Clinton will be battling strong political headwinds. “It’s rare to have one party in power for 12 years,” he said. “There are a lot of people who will be tired of Obama.”

But the perception of Clinton as more moderate than Obama is another component of the GOP’s Hillary fear, especially as the party struggles to boost its appeal to liberal-minded minorities and young voters. One state chair described the GOP’s annual meeting as less about winning and more about fighting to remain a credible alternative to the Democratic Party. “We can’t even think about winning until we stop losing voters every cycle,” he said.

And one former Romney aide here warned that grassroots activists pushing for an even more conservative GOP identity could seal the party’s fate: “If we listen to some of the people here and come back with a hardline conservative in 2016, she’ll wipe the floor with us.”