Democrats say Hillary Clinton would leave void if she opts out of 2016

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hillary Clinton has not missed a Democratic convention since 1968 and her conspicuous absence this year left some Democrats wondering who would fill her shoes if she skips a presidential run in 2016.

If Clinton retires from public service, Democrats say Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are considered potential successors.

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Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democratic congresswoman from Florida, and Kamala Harris, California’s attorney general, who addressed the convention, also receive mentions.

But there is no obvious front-runner to become the first female Democratic nominee for president in the foreseeable future.

“It’s hard to predict right now. There are women who are outstanding members of the Senate, outstanding members of the House. Clearly Elizabeth Warren if she’s elected to the Senate is someone who will have nationwide notoriety,” said former Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), a one-time member of the House Democratic leadership.

University of Virginia  political scientist Larry Sabato describes the Democratic Party as the “mommy party” and the GOP as the “daddy party." More women than men have identified themselves as Democrats since at least 1983, according to the Center for the American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. In 2008, 56 percent of female voters backed Barack Obama for the presidency.

Some Democrats are impatient for a woman to occupy the Oval Office.

“I would like to see a woman president, absolutely, and as soon as possible,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). 

Aside from Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) four-year reign as House Speaker, Clinton has been the most prominent female leader of the Democratic Party for the past 20 years.

The secretary of State has not revealed whether she will run for the White House in four years, saying only that she will not serve another term in Obama's administration if he wins in November. She watched her husband’s speech at the convention Wednesday night from East Timor, following the State Department’s tradition of keeping aloof from partisan politics.

Supporters of her 2008 campaign for the White House say they want her to make another bid, and scoff at questions about whether she might be too old. She would turn 69 years old shortly before Election Day 2016.

“She’s got more energy and stamina than all of us. A couple of years hasn’t changed that, she’s gotten stronger,” said Heather Podesta, a Democratic lobbyist and donor, on her way out of a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee lunch Wednesday. She supported Clinton’s 2008 campaign.

If Clinton opts out, however, there would be a vacuum atop a party that has become increasingly reliant on the support of female voters.

A recent poll for Lifetime Television conducted by pollsters Kellyanne Conway and Celinda Lake showed Obama had a 16-point advantage over Mitt Romney over likely female voters. 

Democratic officials have a ready list of women from their ranks they could see one day filling Clinton’s shoes.

“I always said Debbie Wasserman Schultz from my days in the House,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), when asked about future presidential contenders. “She has proven herself to be an extraordinary advocate for things she believes in. People like Amy Klobuchar have an opportunity to do things like that.

“Kirsten is in that same universe. She comes from a great state and has had a fantastic rise,” he added in reference to Gillibrand.

“Kathleen Sebelius, Janet Napolitano. There are two good ones,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Democrats see Gillibrand, who is running for reelection, as a strong contender because she represents a large and reliably Democratic state with a rich fundraising base. She reported $10.5 million in her campaign account at the end of June.

She also has Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), one of the party’s smartest political strategists, as a mentor. Schumer on Thursday declined to comment on the 2016 race, and noted that Gillibrand said this week that she would not run then.

Gillibrand tamped down speculation about her future this week by telling reporters she had no interest in the presidency in 2016. Instead, she touted Clinton at an Iowa delegation breakfast Thursday.

Klobuchar and other possible White House hopefuls, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, visited the delegation earlier in the week. Iowa is traditionally the first contest of the presidential primary and helped vault Obama past Clinton in 2008.

But Democrats outside Washington’s official circles are less familiar with women other than Clinton who could play on the national stage.

“There are a number of rising stars. Sen. Gillibrand is doing a tremendous job,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, CEO of MomsRising.org, who introduced first lady Michelle Obama at an event held by the Women’s Caucus at the convention center.

Rowe-Finkbeiner said it was difficult to think of others.

“I don’t know. What are other people saying? The list of women in line to run for president needs to be much longer,” she said.