WASHINGTON -- For Hillary Clinton, the onslaught of articles and a new book examining the money paid to her family’s foundation and ex-president husband isn’t going to stop anytime soon. Questions about whether those payments influenced decisions she made as secretary of state look likely to dog her campaign for months.
Republicans of course are talking loudly about the controversy. Democratic strategists are fretting quietly. At the moment, no other serious candidate seems ready to get into the race. Since Clinton is the presumptive nominee, one small misstep for her is one giant flop for the party.
But the nerves acknowledged by national Democrats are scarcely audible in Iowa, where, next February, Clinton and other candidates will be judged by actual voters. International Business Times interviewed Democratic county chairs representing more than 15 Iowa counties. Some were more concerned than others. Overall, though, their collective response to the bubbling controversy was a shrug.
“Inside the Beltway, the media and certainly Republicans think this is something -- but I can assure you, here in the real world we know what it is: It is more smoke with little or no fire,” said Rosemary Schwartz, Benton County Democratic chairwoman. “Unfortunately, with the Clintons, something else will be on the horizon that will create another distraction.”
“I hope this doesn't become the total talking points of the campaign for the next year and a half,” said Brian Kingsolver, Fremont County Democratic chairman. "I would hope many of the campaigns on both sides of the aisle will have a real debate about the issues and not use 30-second blurbs to win this election.”
Kurt Meyer, chairman of the counties of Howard, Mitchell and Worth, points out that Clinton is familiar to Iowa voters. "People who will end up going to precinct caucuses in February have a full file folder of who Hillary Clinton is ... Something like who donated to the Clinton Foundation doesn't really alter people's perceptions much because those are already baked in."
He added, "If she were Marco Rubio, where Iowans said 'I really don't know this person,' or this neurosurgeon Ben Whatever-His-Name-Is ... then you would say something like, who supports the foundation would be a little bit more of an issue. But with Hillary Clinton, and I accept the fact that she's already a polarizing figure, people have already made up at least a part of their mind."
Jean Pardee, Democratic chairwoman for Clinton County, said there is some concern, but it's largely about possible political fallout and it's coming from undecided voters. “These are people who were not supporters last time and worry she may have so much baggage the Republican money-media machine will destroy any chance of her being elected,” Pardee said. “Iowans expect the candidates to be here over and over so they can evaluate them from what they say and how they act, not what unknown reporters write."
Paul Thelen, the Democrat chairman for Crawford County, also emphasized Iowans' pride in making up their own minds. “If you ask a Democrat not yet committed to a candidate you will hear disappointment that there is even the appearance of impropriety,” Thelen said. But even Democrats he called “ABH" -- "Anyone But Hillary” -- point to her respected résumé when the allegations come up, Thelen said. “I think most Iowans will be patient as candidates gain their footing. While reports like these that originate from outside Iowa are important to help examine a candidate's past ... if we allow every allegation to dominate our discussions, we risk never getting a sense of what policies a candidate will pursue if elected.”
One factor in Iowa Democrats' ability to shake off concern about Clinton is the onslaught of political advertising they see heading their way in the next election cycle. The 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court opened up unlimited donation and spending limits for super PACs. States like Iowa were bombarded with advertisements. In the weeks leading up to the 2012 election, programs like the evening news featured only political ads during commercial breaks. Iowa didn’t get a break in the midterms either. The 2014 U.S. Senate race between Sen. Joni Ernst and Bruce Braley saw outside groups pouring millions of dollars of advertising into the state.
“Having lived through recent elections with tons of negative claims by Republicans and PACs, I think that people who are not actively looking for a reason to hate Hillary just aren’t interested,” said Mary Hoyer, Democratic chairwoman in Henry County. “My husband says that he’s already sick of the election – and it’s a year and a half away. I think that’s pretty typical right now for the general voter.”
Bret Nilles, Linn County Democratic chairman, also pointed to widespread resistance to the media. "Based on prior campaigns and the direction they have been going in terms of being negative and attacking candidates, people are getting tired of it," he said. "We all expect Hillary to be scrutinized and attacked, but everyone feels that she can weather this latest issue and any other."
The problem is not Clinton herself, agreed Sherry Tolle, chairwoman of the Cass County Democrats, but the coverage. “The Clinton supporters in my county do not, in and of themselves, have concerns about the foundation donations. What they are concerned about is the media play they are getting and how that will affect voters,” said Tolle. "There are so many nonissues that the GOP is putting out there in hopes that they will sink Clinton’s chances at the presidential nomination — Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi, emails, Benghazi, emails, Benghazi, and now this."
Questions about possible financial influences on Clinton expose a partisan double standard, said Kathy Winter, county chairwoman in Osceola. "Republicans want to cry foul because the Clinton Foundation got money and insinuate that somehow that money taints Secretary Clinton,” she said. “But the Republicans are fine with super donors like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson making their 'donations' contingent on candidates taking particular positions."
Walt Pregler, county chairman in Dubuque, said the 2014 Senate election that Ernst won has numbed the state's voters to fears about the influence of money in politics. “If you were in Iowa and followed Joni Ernst’s campaign, you wouldn’t even worry about money. Campaign finance is a wide-open field. The Koch brothers and ALEC [the business-backed American Legislative Exchange Council] financed Sen. Ernst’s campaign. For all of the aid we give to foreign countries, the Clinton Foundation is not a concern,” Pregler said.
Some state politicians, like Jim Eliason, Democratic chairman in Buena Vista County, say the Clinton Foundation story has barely penetrated. “I have heard no discussion of it here in Iowa,” he said. “From what I've heard it doesn't seem like a big deal. I don't think the Clintons benefit directly (other than prestige, of which they have an overabundance already) from the foundation."
“The email scandal was more germane I think,” Eliason said. “Having separate personal and business email accounts is something every professional should do. I've done it myself. This says more about how Hillary will do her job than the foundation stuff.”
And some Iowa Democrats just aren't paying attention yet. “The Clinton Foundation story simply has not been top of the news at Google News," said Steve Lynch, the Democratic chairman for Chickasaw County. "Perhaps it will be important down the road. I don't know. ”
Jennifer Herrington, of Page County, echoed his lack of interest. “I am barely paying attention to it and I am, you know, a county chair,” she said. “Just like the email 'scandal,' these issues are not what interests or motivates activists, let alone voters. Most people I talk to are expecting the media to pounce on any and every tidbit that comes along as it relates to Hillary Clinton. What Iowans are concerned about is how candidates plan to address the skyrocketing cost of college education, healthcare, mental health issues, gun violence, poverty, income inequality, never-ending war and especially how candidates intend to address the most important issue of our time – climate change.”