ATHENS, Ohio (AP) — With Donald Trump all but clinching the Republican nomination for president, Hillary Clinton is beginning to explore ways to woo Republicans turned off by the brash billionaire.
The Democratic front-runner’s campaign believes Trump’s historically high unfavorable ratings and penchant for controversy may be enough to persuade a slice of GOP voters to get behind her bid, in much the same way so-called Reagan Democrats sided with the Republican president in the 1980s.
Democrats caution their effort to win over Clinton Republicans — or Hilla-cans, perhaps — is in its earliest stages, but could grow to include ads and other outreach targeted in particular at suburban women in battleground states. Already, aides say, a number of Republicans have privately told Clinton and her team they plan to break party ranks and support her as soon as Trump formally captures his party’s nomination.
“We have an informed understanding that we could have the potential to expect support from not just Democrats and independents, but Republicans, too,” said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon. “There’s a time and place for that support to make itself known.”
While such bipartisan support would expand Clinton’s base of potential voters, a series of high-profile endorsements from Republican officials could also raise questions about her liberal credentials and threaten to dampen enthusiasm among some in her own party.
For months, primary rival Bernie Sanders has criticized Clinton’s record from the left, highlighting her 2002 vote in favor of the war in Iraq and support from Wall Street. The Vermont senator won the Indiana primary Tuesday, demonstrating her lingering weaknesses within her own party.
Clinton has begun casting her candidacy in recent days as a cry to unify a divided country. After a series of victories last week, which all but ensured she will capture her party’s nomination, Clinton called on Democrats, independents and what she called the “thoughtful Republican” to back her bid.
Guy Cecil, chief strategist of Priorities USA Action, the super PAC backing her campaign, echoed that language Tuesday night, calling on “Democrats, independents and reasonable Republicans” to reject Trump’s “outdated ideas.”
While a vocal segment of the Republican Party has denounced Trump, few have been willing to go as far as saying they would back Clinton in the fall. But with Trump essentially capturing his party’s nomination with the win in Indiana that knocked Texas Sen. Ted Cruz from the race, there are some early signs that a sliver of the party might see Clinton as the only option.
“(T)he GOP is going to nominate for President a guy who reads the National Enquirer and thinks it’s on the level,” Mark Salter, a top campaign aide to 2008 Republican nominee John McCain, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. He added Clinton’s slogan: “I’m with her.”
Ben Howe, a Republican strategist who has worked for Cruz, said he’d be actively working against Trump — a decision he recognizes means backing Clinton.
“Anything right now that would allow Donald Trump to become president is the wrong move, so the de facto result is that Hillary would win,” he said. “I don’t agree with Hillary Clinton. What I think is Hillary Clinton is more honest than Trump, and that’s saying a lot.”
Endorsements from prominent GOP backers could potentially pave the way for Republican voters to back Clinton, particularly woman.
“Educated, suburban white women are turned off en masse and there will be more of that,” Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Clinton backer, said of Trump. “In the Columbus suburbs, she’s going to do very well.”
A February poll of likely Republican voters commissioned by a Democratic firm led by Stan Greenberg, a former pollster for former President Bill Clinton, found that 20 percent of Republicans are “uncertain” whether they would back Trump or Clinton in a head-to-head match-up.
A quarter of GOP voters in Indiana said they would not vote for Trump in a general election, according to exit polls. Half of Republicans who didn’t vote for Trump said they would be scared and another third said they would be concerned about Trump occupying the White House.
There is some irony in Clinton playing the role of a unifier: She’s long been one of the most divisive figures in American politics. But while 55 percent of Americans said they had a negative opinion of Clinton in an Associated Press-GfK poll released last month, 69 percent said the same of Trump.
For some voters, that leaves them feeling like they have few good options.
Amy Bishop, 42, a stay-at-home mom from Indianola, Iowa, said she wasn’t sure how she would vote in November. She said she would “most likely” go for Clinton over Trump, but stressed that she wasn’t “100 percent.”
“I don’t feel like she’s honest and upfront,” said the self-identified independent. Of Trump, she said, “I think he’s very reactive.”
Tracey Kingery, a Republican from Des Moines, Iowa, said she, too, was unsure about how to vote.
“I think he seriously would go half-cocked on everything. He’s a little too hot-headed for me,” she said. But, said the 47-year-old, “there’s been too much negative stuff about her.”
Lucey reported from Indianola, Iowa.
Follow Lisa Lerer and Catherine Lucey on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/llerer and http://twitter.com/catherine_lucey