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Republicans, rooting for Sanders, see Biden wins as setback

Republican lawmakers are surprised and disappointed by the results of Super Tuesday, which firmly re-established former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenRev. Barber says best way to undercut extremism is with honesty Biden requires international travelers to quarantine upon arrival to US Overnight Defense: House approves waiver for Biden's Pentagon nominee | Biden to seek five-year extension of key arms control pact with Russia | Two more US service members killed by COVID-19 MORE as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination and dealt Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersFormer Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Amanda Gorman captures national interest after inauguration performance Woman who made Sanders's mittens says she's sold out MORE (I-Vt.) a major setback.

Republican senators conceded Wednesday they would rather face Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, as the opposing nominee, instead of Biden, whom they consider more mainstream and tougher to draw a contrast with.

In the battle for the Senate, Republicans would like to tie Democratic candidates to Sanders and socialism, and generally see Biden as a stronger candidate. Similarly, Democrats were uneasy about Sanders as their standard-bearer, and Biden has made this a point of attack on the campaign trail, arguing he would help Democrats take back the Senate.

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“I think Bernie is the easiest to contrast with. Biden would be a little harder to contrast with,” said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial Democrats formally elect Harrison as new DNC chair McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February MORE (R-S.C.). “Truly, I think it’s better for us for Bernie to be the nominee in terms of down-ballot.”

The day after Biden’s big wins, Democrats received the welcome news that Montana Gov. Steve BullockSteve BullockBiden's identity politics do a disservice to his nominees Senate Democrat: Party's message to rural voters is 'really flawed' Ducey to lead Republican governors MORE is poised to enter the race against Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden's Interior Department temporarily blocks new drilling on public lands | Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone | Judge grants preliminary approval for 0M Flint water crisis settlement Group of GOP senators seeks to block Biden moves on Paris, Keystone Biden recommits US to Paris climate accord MORE (R-Mont.). Bullock would be a huge recruit for Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerNRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers Schumer becomes new Senate majority leader US Chamber of Commerce to Biden, Congress: Business community 'ready to help' MORE (D-N.Y.).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellTrump selects South Carolina lawyer for impeachment trial McConnell proposes postponing impeachment trial until February For Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief MORE (R-Ky.) said last year he wanted to make the 2020 election a “referendum on socialism,” a plan that would be helped immensely if Democrats nominate Sanders, who advocates for “Medicare for All,” free college, student debt forgiveness and a wealth tax.

With Biden re-emerging as the favorite to win the Democratic nomination, GOP lawmakers acknowledge 2020 is likely to be more of a referendum on President TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE.

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' Senate confirms Biden's intel chief, giving him first Cabinet official McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE (R-Ky.) called Biden the “safe pick” for Democrats. He said Sanders was “an easier target because he admits his socialism.”

Other Democratic candidates “believe in most of the things he believes in, but they don’t call themselves socialists,” he added.

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GOP lawmakers thought they even had a chance of winning the House with Sanders as the Democratic nominee. Now that hope is fast fading, according to a GOP senator who requested anonymity to assess the presidential race.

“Anybody who wants the president to have an easier time with reelection, I think Sanders clearly helps that outcome,” said the Republican senator.

He said the speculation among Republicans on Capitol Hill on Wednesday morning was “if it’s not Sanders, Republicans probably don’t get the House back.”

“If it is Biden, that makes it a different outcome in the House,” the lawmaker added. “I don’t think the country is at all close to where Sanders is.”  

It’s possible the GOP conventional wisdom, which is shared by much of the Democratic establishment, is wrong and Sanders would be a stronger candidate in the general election than Biden. Democrats in 2016, after all, thought Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSamantha Power's Herculean task: Turning a screw with a rubber screwdriver Beau Biden Foundation to deny lobbyist donations, make major donors public Whoopi Goldberg wears 'my vice president' shirt day after inauguration MORE would defeat Trump.

Republicans also said that the primary fight between Sanders and Biden could leave the Democrats scarred. Several predicted the primary will drag on into the July convention.

“It doesn’t mean the Sanders folks all fall into line. They didn’t last time. He’s pretty out there,” one senator added.

Republican senators think a protracted fight for the nomination will force Biden to tack further to the left than he might otherwise think optimal for the general election.

Senate Republican Whip John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneNRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers Biden steps into debt fight on Capitol Hill McConnell faces conservative backlash over Trump criticism MORE (S.D.) said that GOP leaders will still try to slap the socialism label on Biden.

“There’s a lot of their primary process ahead and I think it’s probably going to be very contested and very contentious, I suspect, between Biden and Bernie,” he said. “All of the candidates have been pushed in the same direction. I think that they’ve been pushed pretty much to the far left.”

“To ultimately win the nomination, you’re going to have to take some very far-left positions,” he added.

But Democratic candidates in Senate battleground states are breathing a sigh of relief after Biden’s strong Super Tuesday showing.

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Sara Gideon, the Democratic Speaker of the Maine statehouse, revealed Wednesday that she voted for Biden after previously declining to take a position in the presidential race.

Her opponent, Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsFor Biden, a Senate trial could aid bipartisanship around COVID relief Limbaugh falsely says Biden didn't win legitimately while reacting to inauguration Bipartisan Senate gang to talk with Biden aide on coronavirus relief MORE (R-Maine), by contrast, has declined to say whether she’ll support Trump’s reelection.

Gideon praised Biden as the candidate “most able to bring the country together and to look into the future to address all the changes we face.”

Even with Biden back in the spotlight for the Democratic nomination, Republican lawmakers say they still feel good about the upcoming election.

Graham said, “I just believe this is Trump’s election to lose if the economy hangs in there.”

“If you’re a Democrat, you got to be worried about a brokered convention now because I don’t think Bernie’s going to go away. You’re not going to have a clear winner, I think,” he said.

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Paul said Biden, despite his recent string of victories, has revealed himself to be an unsteady public speaker and weak debater.

Biden at a Monday rally in Dallas struggled to remember the opening of the Declaration of Independence and almost urged his voters to turn out on “Super Thursday” before quickly correcting himself.

“Have you ever seen a national candidate or nominee stumble over so many words and putting sentences together? I think he’s really struggling. I think Trump will make mincemeat of him in a debate,” Paul said.