Why the rift in Clinton-land matters

Story highlights

  • The public rift in Clinton land has led some to question whether pro-Clinton super PACs can continue to work together
  • The groups were founded to work in concert with one another with tacit support from the Clintons
  • Tensions were still simmering after two days of negative headlines for the collective groups

Washington (CNN)Boy, that escalated quickly.

A collection of Democratic PACs meant to give the party's presumptive front-runner Hillary Clinton a solid foundation for launching a campaign is experiencing its first fracture in what has been so far a unified front. One of the group's central figures, David Brock, resigned Monday from a super PAC board with a scathing email accusing his colleagues of "specious and malicious" attacks on his credibility.
The Priorities USA board has long been seen as the hub of pro-Clinton group coordinating and the rift gave Clinton opponents fresh ammunition to remind the public of campaign infighting from 2008 and worried supporters who feared the return of staffing turmoil that led to the last campaign's implosion.
    The public dispute between super PACs is an anomaly for five political groups that, until now, have presented a largely lockstep march behind Clinton, sliding into place since she left the State Department in 2013.
    And while the web has not always been harmonious -- some close to Priorities USA tried to sink Ready for Hillary early on in the group's founding -- it has worked effectively and helped ice some of the field that could challenge Clinton. But the now public rift put that into question causing some Democrats unaffected by the fighting to question why these seasoned operatives let things play out so publicly.
    A key problem for the pro-Clinton groups -- and by extension Clinton -- is that each of these organizations were conceived to play a specific role that relied on each other to do it's job. For example, American Bridge, a Brock run group, is compiling a wealth of opposition research on Republicans that are likely to run for president in 2016. That information was going to be used in the fundraising and ad buying efforts run by Priorities. But with still simmering tension, it is unclear how those roles will continue to be filled.
    The split between Brock and Priorities USA began after The New York Times published a story last week examining Brock's fundraising practices. The piece questioned his relationship with Mary Pat Bonner and the fact she receives over 12% of all money she raises for Brock-tied groups. In the letter Brock defended his fundraising practices and called the Times story "an orchestrated political hit job."
    The issue is that Brock's resignation from the Priorities board doesn't mean he is no longer involved in the pro-Clinton movement. He still leads two of these groups: Correct the Record, a communications and rapid response organization, and American Bridge, an opposition research firm that tracks Republican candidates and builds research books to help the Clinton effort.
    Then there is Priorities USA, the big money wing of the web, with deep ties to Clinton, and plans to use large sums of money to run ads against Republicans.
    The two groups that were seemingly left out of the recent infighting were Ready for Hillary, the grassroots arm of the pro-Clinton outside group world, and Emily's List, a group focused on electing women candidates and, by extension, Hillary Clinton.
    The meeting point for all these groups was supposed to be the Priorities USA board, which brought together stakeholders from each pro-Clinton group and operated as a forum to coordinate efforts.
    "If you look at our board, the Priorities board, that is coordination incarnate," said a Priorities USA source in early 2014. "That is coordinating."
    Some operatives inside the pro-Clinton world tried on Tuesday to stress that things were on the mend, even if Brock and his former Priorities USA board were still separated.
    "Bumps in the road happen," said one Democratic source with knowledge of the super PAC fall-out. "At the end of the day, the top focus is getting Hillary elected to be the next president and all the groups are going to keep working together."
    "We are moving forward," the source reiterated.
    But that doesn't seem to be the whole story as bad blood between Democratic operatives played out in major news outlets on Tuesday and Wednesday.
    The rift comes down to money and the jockeying for positions that was expected to take place as the all-but-certain Clinton campaign began to kick into gear. As part of the fallout, sources have begun to talk about fundraising woes at Priorities USA and concerns that the group will not be able to compete with the fundraising prowess on the right -- a claim a source at Priorities USA vehemently disputed.
    While it's not just Democrats that experience staffing shake-ups especially in the early days of the campaign -- Jeb Bush's PAC Chief Technology Officer resigned Tuesday -- the Clinton-land break up, and attempted public makeup, left some Democrats questioning whether the pro-Clinton groups were truly united and gave many political watchers flashbacks to the quarreling that defined Clinton's failed 2008 run.
    What's more, the infighting reminded many political watchers of Clinton's 2008 campaign, when public squabbling among top-level operatives defined the former first lady's fall from frontrunner to failed candidate.
    From the start of the 2008 campaign, Clinton advisers were at odds with how to portray the candidate. Should she be tough and go after then-Senator Barack Obama, who quickly took over the second place slot behind Clinton in polls? Or does she take a softer side to combating the rising challenger? Strategists on the campaign disagreed and the rifts, which as first played out in private, went public quickly.
    Just like seven years ago, the right seized on the discord this week. On Monday, conservative outlets painted the fighting as yet another chapter in Clinton-land drama and the Republican National Committee peppered reporters with links to stories about the fighting. "Left Cracks Over Clinton Cash," blared the Drudge headline.
    Recognizing the message war, Brock and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, co-chairwoman of Priorities USA, issued a joint statement on Monday, hours after the letter went public, that pledged to work on their issues.
    Democrats close to the situation said the conciliatory statements were honest, and both Brock and Granholm, but tensions are still simmering.
    Despite all of the friction, many Democratic operatives said day-to-day operations between the groups will continue as planned.
    "Everything will still happen the way it is supposed to happen," said one Democratic source with knowledge of the situation. "On a day-to-day level, those two groups work well together."
    "People aren't going to let a working relationship not be good," the source added hopefully, "when the stakes are so high."