What happens if Hillary Clinton doesn’t run? Chaos for Democrats.

Hillary Rodham Clinton hasn’t said yet whether she’ll run for president. If she doesn’t, Democrats would scramble for the most viable alternative among a list that’s not very strong.

Ben Fogletto/The Press of Atlantic City/AP
Hillary Clinton gives the keynote speech at the American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey’s Tri State CAMP Conference at the Atlantic City Convention Center, in Atlantic City, NJ, March 19, 2015.

It’s all but assumed that 2016 presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton soon will announce her candidacy. She’s swooping up wealthy donors, lining up eager-beaver staffers, and reportedly preparing to lease a campaign headquarters facility in Brooklyn.

But what if she doesn’t? What if she’s truly worn out with being a Clinton and all that costs – the constant criticism and controversy? (Former Bill Clinton paramour Monica Lewinsky back in the news giving a TED talk on bullying couldn’t have helped.) What if she really does want to devote most of her time to being a grandma?

The result would be a mass scramble for the most viable alternative – someone who could compete with the likes of tea party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz, (R) of Texas, (expected to announce his candidacy Monday) or mainstream GOP favorite Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida now lining up big Republican donors.

Mrs. Clinton was in Iowa this past week, and so was Politico’s Gabriel Debenedetti.

“There’s a sense of certainty surrounding her prospects in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, yet it’s accompanied by a deep sense of unease that’s rooted in Iowa’s complicated history with the Clintons,” Debenedetti writes. “Few expect she’ll get much of a challenge, but almost no one is under the illusion she’ll be campaigning in Iowa as a happy warrior either.”

The latest Reuters/Ipsos wouldn’t have brought smiles to the Clinton camp either – not only because it shows her support softening but because it indicates that the controversy over her private email accounts is alive among Democrats as well as Republicans eager to weaken her wherever and whenever they can.

“Support for Clinton's candidacy has dropped about 15 percentage points since mid-February among Democrats, with as few as 45 percent saying they would support her,” Reuters reported. “Even Democrats who said they were not personally swayed one way or another by the email flap said that Clinton could fare worse because of it, if and when she launches her presidential campaign.”

Even among Democrats, according to this poll, 46 percent agreed there should be an independent review of all of Clinton's emails to ensure she turned over everything that is work-related, and 41 percent said they backed the Republican-controlled congressional committee's effort to require Clinton to testify about the emails. 

Still, Clinton remains far ahead of any other potential Democratic candidate, and any dithering on her part makes it hard for anybody else to jump in.

“My view of the electorate is, we react badly to inevitability, because we experience it as entitlement, and that is risky, it seems to me,” former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick told The New York Times recently. 

On Sunday, the Boston Globe pushed somebody in the direction of challenging Clinton, urging Sen. Elizabeth Warren to run.

Democrats would be making a big mistake if they let Hillary Clinton coast to the presidential nomination without opposition, and, as a national leader, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren can make sure that doesn’t happen,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote. “If she puts her causes and goals front and center, as Democrats gather their forces for the crucial 2016 campaign, Warren could enrich the political process for years to come.”

Although Sen. Warren insists she’s not in the race, she’s always included among potential candidates worth mentioning.

University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato lines them up this way:

First tier: Clinton.

Second tier: Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.

Third tier: John Kerry.

Fourth tier: Former senator Jim Webb, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former governor Martin O’Malley.

Fifth tier: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

Not exactly a strong field at this point.

The bottom line for Professor Sabato?

“The email episode, the questions about foreign money, and other challenges to Clinton may eventually prove damaging or even fatal to her candidacy – but certainly not yet. Not even close. The media and Clinton’s conservative critics, the two entities most riled up by the recent revelations, don’t vote in the Democratic primaries, and unless these controversies become real scandals with smoking guns, they won’t topple Clinton as the Democratic frontrunner.

“But if Clinton does begin to truly falter – or if she shocks everyone and ultimately passes on a run – who else is there on the Democratic side?...  if she were to suddenly exit the race there would be a chaotic vacuum where the Democratic establishment would cast about for a tested alternative.”

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