House

Vulnerable Democrats brace for Sanders atop ticket

Vulnerable House Democrats are cooking up ways to distance themselves from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) - a self-described democratic socialist and the party's presidential front-runner - as they fight to secure reelection in tough districts this November.

Sanders's Democratic critics are hoping a late surge by a more moderate primary contender will topple the firebrand independent, whose grassroots campaign has soared with a decisive win in the Nevada caucuses and an expanding lead in national polls.

Yet Tuesday's debate in South Carolina - where six other White House hopefuls all had Sanders in their sights - failed to damage his ascendant campaign. And polls ahead of Saturday's primary in the Palmetto State, where former Vice President Joe Biden was thought to be the heavy favorite, now forecast a tighter race.

Sanders's Democratic detractors are not ready to say his nomination is inevitable. Yet the combination of recent victories and surging polls has left them gaming out a scenario where Sanders is at the top of the ticket - and they're racing away from his far-left agenda for their own political survival.

"People are very worried that if Bernie becomes the nominee that it'll be a disaster for them in their own districts," Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.) told The Hill on Wednesday. The angst, he added, is "pretty intense."

Vargas, a liberal supporter of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, represents a left-leaning district along the U.S.-Mexico border and is not facing a serious challenge in November. But a number of his more centrist colleagues, including Democrats facing tough contests this fall, are already mulling ways to distance themselves from Sanders.

"I'm going to run on what I believe, no matter who is at the top of the ticket," said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a freshman Biden supporter who flipped a GOP seat in the 2018 wave election.

"We have such a simple path to electing a Democratic president. All we've got to do is to say we're not messing with the economy; we're going to improve health care; and we're going to give you a president who tells the truth, respects the law, and can be a good moral example for your kids," he added. "Why we would risk this extraordinary opportunity by nominating somebody who has a tendency to divide our own side is beyond me."

Sanders's embrace of liberal policies such as "Medicare for All," a ban on fracking and debt-free college education has made him a piñata for Republican campaign operatives, who are hoping to link centrist Democrats to Sanders's "socialist" label at every turn. Well aware of the strategy, those Democrats are already girding against the attacks.

Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), a Bloomberg backer, said he spent last week's recess reminding his constituents, "I'm not a socialist; I believe in capitalism." But he quickly added: "The fact that I have to remind people is not a good thing."

Freshman Rep. Gil Cisneros (D-Calif.), who flipped a GOP-held seat, repeatedly declined to say he would campaign alongside Sanders in his Southern California district. It is, he said, "too far into the future" to commit.

And Rep. TJ Cox (Calif.), another vulnerable freshman Democrat, tried his best to downplay Sanders's democratic socialist label while arguing that anyone would be better than Trump.

"It's not about what [politicians] are calling themselves; it's about their principles and what they stand on," Cox told The Hill. "You've got one party and one guy [Trump] who is saying ... they're trying to cut Social Security and Medicare. We have one guy who is trying to protect it and enhance the social safety net for the American people."

The dynamics mark something of a departure from past presidential cycles, when the nominee typically acts as the party's standard-bearer heading into Election Day - the figure who sets the tone and the agenda through the long campaign fight - and routinely enjoys virtually unanimous support from rank-and-file Democrats.

If Sanders wins the nomination, most Democrats say they'll rally around him. But in the same breath, some are warning that Sanders would act as a drag on vulnerable Democrats down-ballot, perhaps costing the party its majority in the House and its chances of flipping the Senate. 

"It's going to make it more difficult for our 44 at-risk candidates to win if they are on the ticket with a democratic socialist, and it will be harder for us to pick up new seats," said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who was the first lawmaker to endorse former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Sanders and his liberal allies on Capitol Hill reject that charge, arguing that his populist brand and no-apologies progressivism will lure voters to the polls in numbers benefitting Democrats of all stripes. And Democratic leaders, while largely steering clear of endorsing in the primary, are also predicting they'll pick up seats - regardless of who is the party's nominee.

Leaving a meeting of House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she would be comfortable with Sanders at the top of the ticket. Her top deputy, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), told reporters that "we're going to hold the House" no matter who wins the presidential nomination.

Still, Hoyer also downplayed the significance of the message coming from the presidential candidates, leaving open the possibility that House Democrats would carve their own message, if need be.

"The presidential candidates raise the issues that they think are relevant and they want the American people to consider; that's what campaigns are about, that's what debates are about," Hoyer said. "The Speaker and I have definitely a role to play in making sure that ... we continue to let the American people know we're focused on issues that affect them: health care, jobs, infrastructure, global warming [and] education, and we're going to do that."

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