Senate Democrats avoid calling Sanders front-runner

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s Democratic colleagues in the Senate are sidestepping references to his front-runner status, even though he has the most delegates and is the odds-on favorite to win California and Texas on Super Tuesday.

Senate Democrats, most of whom do not support the Vermont Independent’s boldest proposals — “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college and the Green New Deal — aren’t ready to crown Sanders as the likely nominee, arguing that former Vice President Joe Biden or another candidate might surge to the top.

“You know, it’s hard to say. What, about 3 percent, or something like that, of people have voted? So a lot more people have to have their voices heard,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) when asked if Sanders is now the front-runner.

Smith is up for reelection in a state that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won in 2016.

Trump plans to compete in Minnesota this year, telling supporters in 2019: “We are going to fight with all of our heart and soul to win the great state of Minnesota in 2020.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who is up for reelection in a state President Trump narrowly lost, acknowledged that Sanders has won the most contests but said the race is far from over.

“We’re not even a hundred delegates into this process, so we have a long way to go,” she said.

“I think it’s a long time until we get to the convention,” she added, noting that she wants “everybody to have their say.”

While Democratic senators are careful not to criticize Sanders publicly, fearing it could alienate his supporters and dampen voter turnout if another candidate wins the nomination, privately they are worried about his impact on Senate races and other down-ballot contests in swing and Republican-leaning states if he’s atop the ticket. 

Returning from the annual Senate Democratic retreat this week, which was held in Baltimore, one senator said there’s concern that Sanders would make it more difficult to win back control of the Senate if he wins the nomination. 

“You hear a lot of people talk about that. I know people are concerned,” said the Senate Democrat. 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) says he wants to make the 2020 battle for Senate control “a referendum on socialism,” and Sanders’s progressive politics might not play well in key states such as Georgia, Kansas, Iowa and North Carolina, where Democrats hope to pick up GOP seats. 

Senate Republicans have already started to launch attacks trying to tie Democratic candidates such as Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) to Sanders.

A second Democratic senator said colleagues are not ruling out the possibility of a contested convention if no candidate succeeds in winning the 1,991 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. 

“Are we going into the convention where somebody only has a plurality of delegates?” said the lawmaker. “Let’s see what happens with [former New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg spending half a billion dollars in all these big states.”

“The good thing about a convention if you go in with a plurality, whoever it is, is that we have deals to deal with it,” the lawmaker added. “What the rules do, which are really good rules, is allow second choices and third choices. So people that were supporting one candidate early on get to go on to a second and third choice.”  

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) acknowledged that Sanders has the most delegates after the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary but argued the label of front-runner is “premature.”

“The polling I’m seeing, the Super Tuesday polling, suggests that Bernie is going to do well in some states but also Biden is going to do well, Bloomberg’s likely to do well, maybe Buttigieg,” Kaine added, referring to former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Kaine publicly endorsed Biden on Friday, a day after he spoke to The Hill, reflecting his confidence that Biden can stage a comeback after disappointing fourth- and fifth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively.

Liberal activists who back Sanders say more mainstream Democrats are in denial about his strong chances of winning the nomination. 

Roger Hickey, co-director of Campaign for America’s Future, a progressive advocacy group, noted that Sanders is leading in Virginia, according to a recent poll by Data for Progress. 

“The problem for those trying to stop Bernie is there are all of these candidates competing for the job of man or woman who is going to stop Bernie. They’re all competing for that same so-called middle-of-the-road vote. They’re all dividing up that vote,” Hickey said. 

Bob Borosage, president of the Institute for America’s Future and a co-director for Campaign for America’s Future, said Sanders is more in step with Democratic voters around the country than many Senate Democrats. 

A “huge portion” of Senate Democrats “are more cautious on politics than he is,” Borosage said. “It’s a slow process educating senators about voters really are now.”

Charles Chamberlain, the chairman of Democracy for America, a grassroots-driven group dedicated to fighting for “inclusive populism” and “progressive political action,” said anyone who fails to recognize Sanders’s front-runner status isn’t seeing the race clearly.

“Any Senate Democrat, any person in D.C., any person across this country who doesn’t think Bernie Sanders is a front-runner is delusional,” he said. 

Biden is the heavy favorite to win the South Carolina primary on Saturday. Polls show him with an average lead of 12 points over Sanders in the Palmetto State.

But after Saturday, it’s hard to see how Biden keeps pace with Sanders in the delegate race on Super Tuesday. 

New CNN polls of California and Texas, two of the biggest prizes on Super Tuesday, show Sanders has widened his lead in both states.

A CNN-SSRS survey released Friday showed Sanders with 35 percent support in California, ahead of his closest rival in the state, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), by 21 points and Biden by 22 points.

The same polling showed Sanders with 29 percent support in Texas, 9 points ahead of second-place Biden. 

California will award 415 pledged delegates, while Texas will distribute 228.

Chamberlain noted that Sanders is projected to finish in second place in South Carolina and predicted that won’t slow his momentum. 

“While there may be a short-term media narrative that turns on Bernie in the next couple days, that’s only the worst-case scenario,” he said. “On Tuesday, Bernie is going to win a bunch of states with California and Texas being the two big dogs. And he’s going to win it with a multigenerational, multiracial coalition.”

Updated at 2:19 p.m.

Tags 2020 Democrats Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Gary Peters Hillary Clinton Jeanne Shaheen Joe Biden Mitch McConnell Pete Buttigieg Tim Kaine Tina Smith

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