Hill, Holmes offer damaging impeachment testimony: Five takeaways
Gabbard stokes fears among Democrats
Democrats are growing increasingly suspicious of Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's (D-Hawaii) political intentions, fearing that she may be considering a third-party bid for the White House in 2020 if she doesn't win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Gabbard's announcement last week that she would not seek reelection to her House seat and would instead focus solely on her presidential bid only served to hasten those concerns.
Some party strategists and operatives fear that a third-party bid by the Hawaii congresswoman could fracture parts of the electorate and stir chaos in the 2020 contest, ultimately setting the stage for President Trump's reelection.
The criticisms are particularly pointed from people in former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's orbit.
"She has absolutely zero path to becoming the Democratic nominee, so what is she doing?" said Adam Parkhomenko, a Democratic strategist and former aide to Clinton, the party's 2016 presidential nominee. "To say that she's going to take her campaign all the way to the convention just suggests that she's trying to create chaos."
Gabbard, who is polling in low single digits and lags far behind the Democratic primary field's top-tier candidates in fundraising, has said publicly that she will not mount an independent bid for the presidency if she fails to clinch the Democratic nomination. And there are reasons why she may have chosen to punt on another run for her House seat.
She faced a formidable primary challenge from Hawaii state Sen. Kai Kahele, who has repeatedly criticized Gabbard for her absence from her congressional duties while on the campaign trail. Meanwhile, she has transferred most of the money for her House campaign to her presidential bid, leaving her reelection account strapped for cash.
Still, the suspicion that Gabbard may be eyeing a third-party or independent presidential campaign underscores a sort of wariness of the Hawaii congresswoman among some Democrats, who see her as unpredictable and at times willing to turn on her own party.
She has repeatedly broken with Democrats on foreign policy issues and drew widespread criticism for a secret 2017 visit with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whom U.S. officials have accused of being a war criminal. Congressional leaders were not made aware of that meeting until after the fact.
She has also taken aim at her party in recent weeks, accusing the Democratic National Committee (DNC) of "rigging" the nominating contest and threatening to boycott an Oct. 15 presidential primary debate in protest. Ultimately, she chose to participate in that debate.
And during an appearance on Sean Hannity's Fox News show last week, Gabbard criticized what she said was a lack of transparency in the House impeachment inquiry, remarks that some Democrats saw as echoing Republican talking points.
"It's not just whether she's a loyal Democrat. The issue is whether she's prepared to stand up to the corruption and incompetence of the Trump presidency," said Robert Zimmerman, a DNC member and Democratic fundraiser. "If she runs as a third party, she'll be an enabler to his reelection."
Some Democrats have sharpened their attacks on Gabbard in recent weeks, raising the alarm over what they see as suspicious online efforts to amplify the congresswoman's criticism of Democratic detractors and rival campaigns.
"I'm not on Twitter getting attacked by real people when Tulsi and I have a spat or a disagreement," said Bakari Sellers, a top surrogate for Sen. Kamala Harris's (D-Calif.) presidential campaign who is also supporting Kahele's House bid. "I'm getting attacked by Russian bots. This isn't rocket science. This is something we've seen before."
There is no evidence of coordination between Gabbard's campaign and the online bot networks, and experts note that bot activity is typically aimed at sowing discord and divisions among a broad array of groups.
But lingering concerns about online disinformation campaigns and foreign interference in U.S. elections has put many Democrats on high alert, creating a flashpoint in the party's presidential race with Gabbard at the center of it.
Clinton said earlier this month that Gabbard is the "favorite of the Russians" to win the Democratic nomination next year and suggested that Republicans were "grooming" her for a third-party run in hopes of undermining the Democrats' eventual nominee.
"I'm not making any predictions, but I think they've got their eye on somebody who's currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate," Clinton said on the podcast "Campaign HQ." She did not mention Gabbard by name in the interview, but a spokesperson for Clinton later confirmed that she was referring to Gabbard.
Clinton's remarks drew a furious rebuke from Gabbard, who accused the former secretary of State of launching a campaign to smear her reputation and undermine her political prospects because of her willingness to break from the Democratic establishment.
"If they can falsely portray me as a traitor, then they can do it to anyone," Gabbard said in a video message to supporters earlier this month. "And in fact that's exactly the message that they want to get across to you: That if you stand up against Hillary and the party power brokers, if you stand up to the rich and powerful elite and the war machine, they will destroy you and discredit your message."
The concerns about a possible third-party presidential run partly reflect the lingering belief among some Democrats that Jill Stein, the Green Party's 2016 presidential candidate, managed to pull just enough votes away from Clinton in critical states - such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania - to hand Trump the election.
The number of votes Stein received in those states was larger than Trump's margin of victory over Clinton. And some Democrats worry that Gabbard, who has a higher national profile than Stein did, would have a similar effect on the general election if she were to run as a third-party candidate.
"I think the possibility of [Gabbard] running as a third party is very, very real and it should concern all of us," one DNC member said. "Look what Jill Stein did to Hillary Clinton. She was the difference in three states."
Despite Gabbard's insistence that she has ruled out a third-party campaign, some Democrats remain skeptical. Sellers said there was still plenty of time for the congresswoman to change her mind.
"I don't trust anything she says in that regard," Sellers said. "I think we've seen that before, but I think many of the concerns that Hillary Clinton and myself had about congresswoman Gabbard are proving to be true and I think that's unfortunate."
A spokesperson for Gabbard's campaign said that the congresswoman had been "very clear" about her intentions for 2020 and referred The Hill to a brief question-and-answer session between her and reporters last week.
Asked if there were any circumstances under which she would change her mind about a third-party presidential run, Gabbard was blunt.
"No," she said. "Answer's still the same. Nope."