Hillary Clinton's challengers may cause her grief

Story highlights

  • Three Democrats are taking on the strong front-runner Hillary Clinton
  • Louis: Experienced members of her team recognize that her aura of inevitability could be shattered

Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Experienced members of Hillary Clinton's political team, especially veterans of the bruising 2008 Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses she lost to Barack Obama, know better than to scoff at the arrival of three lesser-known new candidates to the Democratic contest for president.

The recent campaign announcements of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, along with this week's expected entry by former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, suggest that a lot can go wrong for Clinton before she (maybe) gets the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Errol Louis
Make no mistake: all of the newcomers would gladly trade places with Clinton, who inherits and commands a political juggernaut chock full of Democratic donors, elected officials and leaders of local political machines. She is among the best-known public figures in the world, with name recognition approaching 100% and a husband who is even better known (and immensely popular among Democratic voters).
    The Clintons' tangled financial dealings, while potentially costly from an ethical standpoint, also indicate a formidable fundraising ability that will provide her campaign with ample funds for television advertising, field operations and sophisticated polling.
    But polls show that Clinton, while holding impressive double-digit leads over every Republican potential adversary, still has favorability ratings under 50%. She's viewed favorably by 49%, and unfavorably by 46% -- her worst numbers since April 2008. That suggests cracks in the armor, including many of the same weaknesses that Obama exploited to masterful advantage in 2008.
    At a time when even an overwhelming majority of millionaires say income inequality is a major concern, Sanders -- who calls himself a socialist, championing an old-school New Deal Democratic approach to politics -- is poised to drain voters from Clinton's left flank.
    In a country that values executive experience -- four of the past six presidents were governors before voters sent them to the White House -- Clinton's impressive resume includes no election to an executive position, compared with O'Malley's combined four terms as a big-city mayor and governor.
    Chafee, who is scheduled to jump into the race June 3, presents a multiple threat to Clinton. He can claim both executive and legislative experience, having served as a mayor, senator and governor. He also was elected as a Republican and an independent before becoming a Democrat in 2013; that not only steals some of Clinton's thunder as a third way centrist, but Chafee could cost her votes in early primary states, including New Hampshire, that allow participation by non-Democrats.
    And don't forget that Chafee, as a Republican senator, voted against authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq war in 2002; Clinton has described her pro-war vote as "a mistake" (the very error that arguably cost Clinton the nomination in 2008).
    Alongside those external challenges lies a big, self-inflicted problem that Clinton seems unable to shake: in an age when the outsized influence of big-money donors and lobbyists is testing the limits of voters' patience, the confusing but deeply distasteful mix of philanthropy, diplomacy and personal gain by Clinton and her husband, the ex-president, raise ethical suspicions that may prove costly during the primary season.
    So on substance, Team Clinton has plenty of reasons to be worried. She retains an aura of inevitably because the game of politics is about far more than comparing resumes and ticking off past votes, and on many of the fundamentals, Clinton sits down at the table holding a number of powerful cards.
    But that can change quickly. Sanders raised a respectable $1.5 million within 24 hours of announcing, and is polling at 15% among Democrats. O'Malley has hired a veteran political operative, Karine Jean-Pierre as his national political director. Jean-Pierre is a protege of South Africa Ambassador Patrick Gaspard, who formerly served as Obama's White House political director and as executive director of the Democratic National Committee. Jean-Pierre's hiring suggests that O'Malley's candidacy isn't looked upon unkindly by some within the Obama administration and DNC.
    And Chafee has already signaled that he plans to make Clinton's vote for war in 2002 a centerpiece of his campaign.
    Will all that be enough to stop Clinton? We'll know after the first few primaries.
    Back in 2008, it was an upset in Iowa -- where the experienced, well-connected and supposedly inevitable Clinton ended up losing to a newcomer called Barack Obama -- that changed the dynamic of the campaign.
    Expect Sanders, O'Malley and Chafee to try to duplicate that scenario by scoring an early win that reminds voters that they, and not the pollsters and pundits, will decide whether Clinton's "inevitability" is real or an illusion.