Dick Durbin was on vacation in Oregon last month when he happened upon a group of die-hard Bernie Sanders supporters.
The No. 2 Senate Democrat approached one grandmother who recognized the Illinois senator from C-SPAN. After agreeing with her on how important Sanders’ policies are to the presidential race, Durbin asked her: “Well, what about Hillary?”
“Well, if it’s Hillary, of course I’ll support her,” the woman replied.
It was that kind of summer for Clinton’s supporters in the Senate, many of whom acknowledge being confronted with questions about her campaign performance and Sanders’ summer surge. Some said they have concerns of their own about her handling of the flap over her email practices as secretary of state, even as they hope she’s turned a corner.
“She’s struggling. And you can see the numbers are moving in a direction she wants to change,” said Durbin, who spent Labor Day alongside Clinton. Of Democratic primary voters drawn to Sanders, Durbin added: “It isn’t like they’re dead set against Hillary. But they find Bernie’s message to be the right message.”
Some senators say privately that it’s disconcerting that Clinton has been unable to shift her campaign narrative from the recent pattern of bad polls and bite-sized revelations about her emails. But rather than sound alarm bells, Senate Democrats, a bedrock of Clinton’s support, are prepared to quietly nurse their anxiety and wait it out.
“Bernie has kind of gone off like a flare. How long that lasts remains to be seen. I don’t think he’s doing the party any damage, so I don’t mind it,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “She’s been trying to keep a low profile and let the Republican candidates try to alienate everyone they can possibly … alienate. So it’s hard, in that strategic mode, to compete with Bernie.”
More than 30 Democratic senators have endorsed Clinton, a key show of support so early in an election that pits Clinton against their current colleague Sanders (I-Vt.) and could eventually include longtime Democratic senator and Vice President Joe Biden. Some senators are privately fretting that Clinton appears slow-footed in responding to Republican attacks, and there are questions among Capitol Hill Democrats about how she is dealing with the new reality of today’s ADD-news cycle, which has fueled real estate mogul Donald Trump’s candidacy.
Their grievances are aired privately for the most part, lest they offend their likely presidential standard-bearer. Indeed, Clinton is shown enormous deference by elected Democrats in Congress, almost to the level enjoyed by President Barack Obama. As for Sanders, while most Democratic senators say he’s brought energy to the race, he is not a real threat to Clinton. Biden, should he run, is viewed much the same, though he would likely pick up endorsements from Delaware’s senators.
Though Clinton’s camp is pointing to consistent leads in the national polls as evidence of her standing, the feeling in the Capitol is that it may get worse for her before it gets better. But once she hits bottom, Democrats predict Clinton will find her footing and march to the Democratic nomination.
“I believe she’s going to be at her best if she does get behind,” said Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, one of Clinton’s most vocal supporters on the Hill and one of the few Democratic lawmakers to publicly question Sanders’ electability. “If she does get behind, it will finally get through to the American people that she’s a fighter and that she wants to earn this and that she doesn’t believe it should be given to anybody.”
A CNN poll this week showed the first uptick for Clinton since June, suggesting that perhaps Clinton has already bottomed out.
Democratic senators said that while they occasionally have access to the candidate, as they did at Durbin’s Labor Day event with her in Rock Island, Illinois, at this point their contact with the campaign is mainly through staff. When Congress came back from recess after a brutal August for Clinton that saw her national poll numbers drop by about 10 points, top Clinton staffers were quickly dispatched to the Hill after she promised them at a caucus lunch in July that the lines of communication were open.
More than a dozen Democratic senators huddled privately with campaign manager Robby Mook, communications director Jennifer Palmieri and national political director Amanda Renteria. The campaign aides were well received as they laid out a different approach to the email controversy and plans to emphasize Clinton’s personality more. On Monday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) met with David Brock, the Clinton defender who entered the leader’s office with a copy of his new book lashing out at the conservative media clutched under his arm.
And there are signs that Clinton is trying to forge personal relationships with a wide array of senators. From stumping with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) in Iowa in August to hanging with Whitehouse in New Hampshire late last week, Clinton has made appearances with at least nine Democratic senators over the past five weeks, sources said.
But some senators are looking for more.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is requesting a personal meeting with Clinton about her climate change policy, which emphasizes green energy but doesn’t speak to some of the energy production matters that the centrist senator has focused on, like the Keystone XL pipeline, which Clinton said Tuesday she opposes. Manchin’s staff has been in close contact with Clinton’s campaign, but the meeting hasn’t happened yet.
“How’s the campaign going? I don’t know. Just what I hear on television. I want to talk to her,” Manchin said. “We’ve always had a good relationship. We need to sit down and talk it through. I’ve got concerns with the climate [plan].”
Though Clinton isn’t electrifying Iowa in September, Democrats believe this tough stretch will be a faded memory once actual votes are being counted. But, they admit, it’s going to be a long four months until then.
“When you’re the front-runner like Hillary Clinton, there’s going to be lots of brickbats thrown at you,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), whose hopes of becoming majority leader in 2017 hinge on Clinton’s ability to boost Democratic turnout in battleground states. “Once the sturm and drang subsides, which will happen once we get closer to the election, all the stuff Hillary is doing now to show how she can help the middle class will pay off.”