Hillary Clinton’s stumbles fuel Democratic critics

Updated 12:32 PM EST, Thu March 5, 2015
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(CNN) —  

The Democratic Party’s anybody-but-Hillary wing is fired up.

A string of damaging stories about Hillary Clinton’s activities as Secretary of State – including the new controversy surrounding her email habits – are giving fresh ammo to Clinton skeptics who have grown resigned lately to the idea of a Democratic coronation instead of a genuine, competitive primary.

Now, those Democrats clamoring for a Clinton alternative are once again speaking up about the need for a primary that will, at the very least, serve as a vetting process and prepare Clinton for the general election.

“The closer we get to 2016, the more the electorate pays attention, which we’re now seeing with foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation and in Hillary’s undisclosed emails,” said Boyd Brown, a Democratic National Committee member and former state legislator from South Carolina. “These are problems that raise real leadership and transparency concerns, concerns that can be addressed in caucuses and primaries, but would go ignored in a coronation process.”

READ: Don’t ask Dems in Congress about Hillary Clinton’s emails

In conversations with grassroots Democrats around the country and in key nominating states, there is renewed concern that Clinton is saddled with too much baggage and dubious political instincts that could sink her against the GOP nominee if the kinks are not worked out in a contested primary.

“The Democratic base that isn’t wedded to her is nervous about it,” said Deborah Arnie Arnesen, a progressive radio host in Concord, New Hampshire. “It makes her more vulnerable. What is this anointed candidate getting us? A much more flawed candidate than we thought. And Republicans now have material they never thought they would have.”

’Nervous’

“We need to litigate this in a primary so that she will better at it, or it will be the Republicans who will be doing it for her,” she added.

The latest round of bad press began last week when the Washington Post reported on foreign government contributions made to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation while she was serving as Secretary of State, including one donation from the Algerian government that may have violated the Obama administration’s ethics policy.

This week, the New York Times broke the news that Clinton exclusively used a private email account to do business at the State Department, allowing her to skirt federal record-keeping practices. The revelation also raised security concerns, though State Department officials said nothing classified passed through her account.

And late Wednesday, Clinton sought to realign herself on the side of transparency, tweeting that she wants “the public to see my email.”

“I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible,” Clinton tweeted.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll be released anytime soon. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in a statement Thursday that the review process will take “some time” because of the volume of emails to sift through.

READ: Hillary Clinton’s emails: What you need to know

Clinton supporters have pushed back against the media and Republicans, waving off the stories as yet another Twitter-fueled much-ado-about-nothing that has little resonance with the typical voter beyond Washington.

“Voters do not give a sh-t about what email Hillary used,” said Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a longtime Clinton ally and CNN contributor. “They don’t even give a fart.”

Power brokers

But if regular voters aren’t paying attention, the Democratic power brokers who hold sway over the nomination process in key states — the legislators, local party chairmen and plugged-in activists — most definitely are. The questions some of them are raising are less about the specifics of the stories and more about the long-established narratives they feed: That the secretive Clintons, enabled by unquestioning loyalists, play by their own rules.

“The questions relating to Hillary are more about, are we tired of the same old thing?” asked one prominent Democratic state Senator in South Carolina who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s time to turn the page and find something that will appeal to voters in South Carolina. People just don’t relate to these national stars like Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi or whatever.”

The critical voices in the Democratic Party should not be confused for the majority view. Many Democrats are siding with Clinton through the e-mail flap, underscoring her broad popularity within the party and her undisputed frontrunner status. Recent polls of Iowa Democrats have put Clinton’s lead over her closest potential rival, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, at anywhere from 40 to 56 points.

“This stuff feels kind of petty to me,” said Cindy Pollard, a Clinton backer and vice-chairman of the Jasper County Democrats in Iowa. “Like, this is all they got?”

New fuel

But the stories have given new fuel to stalwart Clinton skeptics who, anxious about the prospect of a nominee who hasn’t been challenged seriously in the national political arena since her ill-fated 2008 campaign, have been demanding other prominent Democrats to join the 2016 race and not give Clinton a free ride.

Some of her critics are unabashed anti-Wall Street progressives who have urged Warren to join the fray. Some are younger Democrats who see the Clintons as emblems of the past, and others are simply skeptical of Clinton’s ability to stir the passions of the Democratic base.

READ: Benghazi committee going after Clinton emails

Whatever their motivations, the Anybody-But-Hillary voices have been happy over the last several years to prop up potential rivals and feed reporters quotes about the importance of a Democratic nomination fight instead of a free walk to the nomination for Clinton.

But in recent months, with Warren looking unlikely to run and Clinton lining up blue chip talent for her nascent campaign staff, the critics have lowered their voices and braced for the coming reality of Clinton-as-nominee, even if potential contenders like Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders make a run.

Until this week.

While many Democrats are still reluctant to publicly criticize the Clintons — “Everybody is kind of afraid right now to say anything,” one of Iowa’s most well-connected Democratic organizers told CNN when asked about the new controversies — others are less likely to pull punches.

In New York, Zephyr Teachout, who challenged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo from the left in last year’s Democratic Primary, chided Clinton in the New York Daily News over the e-mail flap.

“She shouldn’t have done it,” Teachout said. “She should come forward and give a press availability on it. Just as a matter of leadership, she should address it directly … This is why we need a primary, to force debate both about policy and leadership style.”

Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina party chairman and supporter of Vice President Joe Biden, said the e-mail story is yet another Clinton scandal to throw on the pile.

’Always another shoe to drop’

“There’s always another shoe to drop with Hillary,” Harpootlian told the Washington Post. “Do we nominate her not knowing what’s in those e-mails? If the e-mails were just her and her family and friends canoodling about fashion and what they’re going to do next week, that’s one thing. But the fact that she’s already turned e-mails to the Benghazi committee because she was doing official business on it means she’s going to die by 1,000 cuts on this one.”

Brown, the DNC member, said that party leaders in his state are feeling “shaky” about Clinton.

“Folks are remembering why they pushed back in 2008, and a candidate with the right message and retail politics could pick the lock Clinton thinks she has on the party faithful,” Brown said.