Vulnerable Democrats fret over surging Sanders
House Democrats who know a thing or two about winning in the most competitive parts of the country are sounding the alarm about Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) potentially becoming the party’s presidential nominee.
Vulnerable House Democrats are not only pessimistic about the Vermont senator’s chances against President Trump, they worry he could also cost Democrats the House majority in November.
Freshman Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.), co-chair of the centrist Blue Dogs, said he won’t back Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for president, telling The Post-Standard editorial board in Syracuse that their policies “don’t necessarily align with my beliefs” and it would be “exceedingly difficult” for either candidate to win on Election Day.
Another centrist, freshman Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), said he has significant doubts that Sanders or Warren could beat Trump in swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan that will play a decisive role in the 2020 election.
And Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) warned that having Sanders at the top of the ticket would be an electoral disaster that could put the “House majority at risk.”
The dire warnings from moderate Democrats have become more urgent and aggressive as Sanders fought to a virtual tie with former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa and appeared poised to win the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday.
Democrats are particularly uneasy about a party standard-bearer who labels himself a “democratic socialist,” as Sanders does.
“Sanders is about the worst candidate we can put up. He not only won’t likely win the presidency; he puts the House majority at risk,” Peters, who has endorsed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (D) and represents a district that’s become bluer in recent years.
“I will support Bernie Sanders if he is nominated against Donald Trump; I will do so enthusiastically,” Peters told The Hill on Tuesday, while adding “I don’t think … putting a socialist on the ballot is a good strategy to defeat Donald Trump.”
Freshman Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), whose Staten Island district went for Trump by about 10 points in 2016, also sought to distance himself from any socialist label.
“I’m not a socialist. I’m thinking about printing T-shirts saying as much. I think socialist economic policies fail, inevitably,” said Rose, another Bloomberg backer.
Asked how Sanders would likely play in his district, Rose predicted “probably not very well.”
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who faces a primary challenge from the left this cycle, also expressed trepidation about the prospect of having Sanders as the standard-bearer.
“I’m a Democrat,” Cuellar said Tuesday. “I think it would be difficult to have a socialist at the top of the ticket. I think he clarifies it and says ‘a democratic socialist,’ but a socialist is a socialist, whether it’s Republican socialist or democratic socialist, if there is such a thing.”
Most frontline Democrats have not endorsed anyone for president. But former Vice President Joe Biden leads with nine endorsements from Democrats representing competitive districts, while Bloomberg is quickly catching up, notching five as of Tuesday.
One GOP target, freshman Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.), has backed Warren. Sanders, however, has yet to secure an endorsement from a Democratic lawmaker in a swing district.
Another frontline freshman, Phillips of Minnesota, is backing his home-state senator, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). Asked if a Sanders nomination would give him heartburn, Phillips joked: “You mean heart-Bernie?”
“I’m not going to disparage, I’m not going to prognosticate. But yes, I’m concerned about someone who, in the six states that really matter in this election, could change the outcome of an election that we should win,” Phillips told The Hill. “It causes concern if it is not a candidate who can generate the independent and even moderate Republican support we’re going to need to replace Donald Trump.”
And Phillips agreed with Peters’s prediction that a Sanders nomination would create a detrimental “down-ballot effect” for congressional Democrats.
One vulnerable Democrat put it this way: “There is a fear in the caucus that if it’s not a ‘B’ or a ‘K’ at the top of the ticket — Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg or Klobuchar — we’re in real trouble.”
Sanders’s top surrogates on Capitol Hill argued it’s shortsighted for Democrats like Brindisi to declare they won’t back the Vermont senator.
“The stakes are way too high in this election. I’m not going to huff and puff if my candidate doesn’t secure the nomination,” freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who also describes herself as a democratic socialist, told The Hill on Tuesday. “I think we need to be mature enough to recognize the threat that is coming from the White House and come together behind the eventual nominee, no matter who that is.”
Campaigning alongside Sanders just a day earlier in New Hampshire, Ocasio-Cortez made the case for why Sanders is in the best position to beat Trump: Sanders, she argued, has tapped into a massive political movement against “hate” and “divisiveness.”
“We are at a crossroads in our democracy … and that is why we need to nominate someone with a political revolution at their back, with decades of organizing bringing us to this moment,” Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
“It is not going to be any one candidate that defeats Donald Trump; it’s going to be a movement of Americans that defeat Donald Trump in a rejection of hatred and an embracing of love,” she added.
Despite their clear misgivings, many vulnerable freshman Democrats were reluctant to follow Brindisi’s lead and say they would refuse to back Sanders or Warren. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.) said she will stand with the eventual nominee of her party, as will Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.).
“I am behind whoever wins the nomination,” Luria, a Biden backer, told The Hill. “I don’t like some of their policies, but, you know.”
Freshman Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), who has endorsed Bloomberg, said she will follow the former New York City mayor’s lead if he doesn’t secure the nomination.
“Should he not get the nomination,” she said, “we will support whoever does to defeat this president.”
A reporter on Tuesday asked Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), the chairwoman of House Democrats’ campaign arm who represents a district that Trump won in 2016, how many of her members had approached her saying they were worried about Sanders.
Bustos paused for a full 5 seconds before answering.
“We have discussions about the nominee, but it runs the gamut,” she said.
Juliegrace Brufke contributed.