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 Biden as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination and dealt Sen. Bernie Sanders (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.

“I think Bernie is the easiest to contrast with. Biden would be a little harder to contrast with,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (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 Bullock is poised to enter the race against Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.). Bullock would be a huge recruit for Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (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 Trump.

Sen. Rand Paul (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.

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 Clinton 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 Thune (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.

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 Collins (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.

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.

Tags 2020 Democratic primary Bernie Sanders Charles Schumer Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Joe Biden John Thune Lindsey Graham Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Steve Bullock Steve Daines Susan Collins
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