In House, liberals side with Clinton over Sanders

In House, liberals side with Clinton over Sanders
© Greg Nash

Dozens of House liberals have endorsed Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPelosi's archbishop calls for Communion to be withheld from public figures supporting abortion rights Hillary Clinton: Biden less 'constrained' than Clinton and Obama due to prior administration Biden's unavoidable foreign policy crisis MORE's White House bid even as Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBriahna Joy Gray: Biden campaign promises will struggle if Republicans win back Congress Biden backs COVID-19 vaccine patent waivers McConnell sidesteps Cheney-Trump drama MORE (I-Vt.) is gaining steam.

Sanders, a liberal icon, has emerged as a surprisingly strong candidate since launching his campaign two months ago, raising $15 million and making huge gains on Clinton recently among Democratic voters in Iowa, which will host the country's first presidential caucus.


Yet at least 26 Democrats representing the 69-member Congressional Progressive Caucus –– a bastion of liberal thinking that Sanders helped to launch –– have already endorsed Clinton, according to a tally being kept by The Hill.

The list includes liberal stalwarts like Reps. Rosa DeLaura (D-Conn.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) –– both forceful voices in the recent trade debate that Clinton was reluctant to enter –– and Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), three vociferous critics of an Iraq War that Clinton, as a New York senator, supported.

A number of Democrats have cheered Sanders' entrance into the race, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another liberal favorite, hasn't ruled out the possibility of campaigning for him.

“I love what Bernie is talking about,” she told the Boston Globe Monday.

But no members of Congress have officially endorsed the Vermont senator.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Progressive Caucus, said the decision to withhold endorsements this early in the primary process is a practical one. Many lawmakers simply want a longer opportunity to hear where candidates stand on the issues, he said.

“There will come a point when each person will make up his or her mind as to who to support, and allowing the primary to play out a bit gives everyone the chance to make that decision with as much information as possible,” Grijalva said in an email. “Endorsing now does a disservice to our candidates who are looking for time to make their case to the American people.”

A House Democratic aide echoed that message, suggesting that early endorsements risk undermining the opportunity for lawmakers to influence the debate. The greatest sway the Democrats will have, the aide argued, will be in proposing specific policy prescriptions surrounding the most prominent legislative fights to come –– including the looming debates over a highway bill, government spending and the Ex-Im bank –– and seeing how the candidates react.

“Coming out now doesn't really give you anything,” said the aide, whose boss has not yet endorsed a Democratic candidate. “The ideas coming from congressional Democrats will be more important.”

Licy DoCanto, head of The DoCanto Group, a public policy consulting firm, downplayed the influence of congressional endorsements, arguing that they're largely “immaterial” outside the Beltway. The real challenge facing Sanders and the others in the Democratic field –– including former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Sen. Jim Webb (Va.) –– is not in winning endorsements but in building a national profile to rival Clinton's. 

The recent Iowa poll, he said, is indication that at least Sanders might be breaking through.

“The rest of the country is starting to realize there are other serious candidates, DoCanto said. “It's not just Hillary Clinton.”

Clinton remains by far the front-runner within a tiny Democratic field. The former secretary of state has, for years, been laying the operational ground work of her candidacy, and she hauled in a record of more than $45 million in the first quarter of the race. 

But she's also raised concerns among liberals on and off Capitol Hill, who have criticized her silence on the trade debate, hammered her approach to national security issues and questioned her ties to Wall Street and other well-heeled donors.

Sanders long track record in Congress, many liberals contend, makes him the better voice for the middle class.

“Bernie has been there with us every time, fighting for fairness, for environmental justice, for voting rights and getting big money out of politics,” Larry Cohen, a leader of the Communication Workers of America, said this week in endorsing Sanders. “This is our chance to build a movement that will not answer to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

The debate arrives following a 2014 election cycle when Democrats were hammered at the polls, losing control of the Senate and ceding the largest GOP House majority since the Great Depression. 

Leaders of the Progressive Caucus and other liberals have blamed the losses on what they say is the reluctance of Democrats to embrace core principles like wage equality, universal healthcare and a robust safety-net system. Many are welcoming the notion of a well-contested Democratic primary –– in lieu of a landslide –– arguing that the ultimate nominee will be better poised to win the White House afterwards. 

“President Obama and Secretary Clinton both benefitted from their hard-fought primary in 2008,” Grijalva said. “They tested each other, and as a result, they both became stronger leaders in the end.”

Democratic strategists say there are numerous factors fueling the timing and direction of lawmaker endorsements, including historic loyalties to candidates, public sentiment, gender considerations and regional concerns. But while those endorsements can help with fundraising, groundwork and momentum, the strategists add, it's ultimately up to the contenders themselves to win the trust of voters and get them to the polls.

“You have another surrogate in your army to go out there and spread the message,” said Doug Thornell, democratic strategist and managing director at SKDKnickerbocker, a public affairs firm. “But when it comes to winning the votes, it's up to the candidates.”

On the primary front, the Democrats think they have the advantage over the Republicans, who have a much larger field and face more pressure to distinguish themselves as top-tier candidates. Thornell predicted the GOP primary “is going to get bloody earlier than normal.”

“There are going to be a lot of desperate Republicans, doing whatever it takes to claw their way into the top ten,” Thornell said. “The Democrats don't really have that problem.”