Ahead of the 2010 midterm elections, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the GOP's top goal was to make Barack Obama a one-term president.
It is with that history in mind, and amid one of the nastiest U.S. elections ever, that Hillary Clinton begins her closing argument to a bitterly divided America.
For all her outreach to progressives on issues like trade and Wall Street regulation since she launched her bid in April 2015, she’s ending her campaign with a direct appeal to Republicans by casting her candidacy as not about partisanship but as a referendum on American democracy.
During a Tuesday speech in Florida, Clinton said Republican Donald Trump poses a threat to the U.S. Constitution with attacks on freedom of speech and the press, the encouragement of violence at rallies and with a proposed religious test for Muslim immigrants. “Now his final target is democracy itself,” Clinton said in a speech near Fort Lauderdale, referring to Trump’s comments at the recent Las Vegas debate that he may not accept the results of the Nov. 8 election.
Yet in her stump speeches, Clinton is making clear that her top priority isn’t just attacking Trump but also the down-ballot Republicans she’d like to see replaced by Democrats. In recent trips to New Hampshire and North Carolina, Clinton has taken aim at GOP Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Richard Burr for standing by their party's nominee, though some of the most vulnerable Republicans — like Ayotte — have recently sought to distance themselves from the top of the ticket.
With polls showing her with a comfortable lead as the the campaign enters its final stretch, Clinton is looking to run up her margin of victory, anticipating a potentially divisive atmosphere in Congress following the election.
The 2010 McConnell comment about Obama offers a good reminder of the stakes, said Robert Shapiro, a political science professor at Columbia University. “If that’s where we were then, the starting point may well be the same thing unless the election outcome is so lopsided the Republicans think they need to be a little bit more conciliatory,” he said.
It’s an awkward balancing act, as Clinton pivots from attacking incumbent congressional Republicans she might ultimately have to work with to making overt gestures to court their base of independent and GOP voters in order to bolster her own margins. In New Hampshire, for instance, after attacking Ayotte, Clinton pivoted to her message about unifying the country. “I'm proud to see Americans coming together — Democrats, Republicans and independents — to reject hate and division,” Clinton said at a Monday rally.
“We are more than our disagreements, we Americans. There is so much more that unites us than divides us. I'm proud to have the support of more than 150 Republican leaders in this state who put country before party,” she added.
This unity message is buttressed by a new round of television ads featuring Republicans and military officials, including John Allen, a retired four-star Marine general who served under both Obama and President Bush. Another series features Republican parents who say they don’t agree with Clinton on everything but can’t support Trump.
One new spot, titled “A Place for Everyone,” looks a lot like the video she began her campaign with that primarily featured the faces of voters instead of her.
“I want us to heal our country and bring it together,” Clinton says in the ad, making no mention of Trump. “My vision of America is an America where everyone has a place,” she says, as images of Americans of different races, ages and gender appear on screen.
Given her high unfavorable ratings, it is imperative that Clinton makes this case now, according to presidential historians. “This has to be seen as a centrist election for Hillary Clinton, not a progressive wave election,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Texas.
If Clinton is able to win a traditionally red state like Arizona, where polls show a tight race, that could help pressure Republicans to work with her more than they did with Obama. “Half the Republican Party is not going to accept her as legitimate,” said Brinkley. “It’s essential that what she does is try to show that, while she may be stiff-arming Trumpians, she’s more than willing to work with serious Republicans in Congress,” said Brinkley.
“That’s her picking sides in the civil war in the Republican Party," he said.
At the beginning of his presidency, Obama said he wanted a “team of rivals” in his Cabinet, borrowing from the title of Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling book on Abraham Lincoln.
“Whenever there is a difficult moment in American history, you want to show there’s bipartisanship” at the end of the road, said Brinkley. Franklin Roosevelt picked Republicans Frank Knox as secretary of the Navy and Henry Stimson as secretary of war; Obama picked Republican Ray LaHood as Transportation secretary and later Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary.
Clinton, in her speeches, is giving hints as to what she would attempt to advance first as president. In speaking about the biggest investment in jobs since World War II, Clinton stresses an initiative both she and Trump have identified as a priority: infrastructure-related jobs.
Still, Shapiro, the Columbia professor, warned that Clinton’s rhetoric about the need for unity is not enough, even if GOP losses are significant.
“Even without Trump, the degree of partisan conflict would have been enormous,” he said. “It’s the leaders who have to figure out how to make peace” — specifically, he said, “the Republican leadership establishment.”