DENVER (AP) — Sen. Bernie Sanders’ robust start in the race for the presidential nomination is triggering alarm among congressional Democrats, with many warning that a ticket headed by the self-declared socialist could be devastating to the party’s chances of winning the Senate and holding the House in November.
In anxious huddles around the Capitol, apprehensive Democrats are sharing their worries that Sanders’ socialist label and unyielding embrace of controversial proposals like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal will repel voters in the affluent, moderate districts that flipped House control in 2018 and in closely divided states where Republican senators are vulnerable.
The Vermont independent narrowly won New Hampshire Tuesday on the heels of a strong showing in Iowa and is widely seen as a front-runner, along with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“I’m a proud capitalist,” said freshman Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, in pointed contrast with Sanders. McAdams, who is supporting former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and whose Salt Lake City district will be among the toughest for Democrats to defend, said having a liberal like Sanders atop his party’s ticket “would probably give me more opportunities to show my independence” from the party.
Another freshman from a competitive district, Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., said Democrats need a presidential nominee who “doesn’t scare all those future former Republicans more than Trump scares them.” And while acknowledging that Republicans plan to tar all Democrats with the socialist label, “There’s one candidate for whom that would not be a lie.”
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., who backs the candidacy of former Vice President Joe Biden, warned a group of Democratic voters this week in Carson City, Nevada, that with Sanders atop the ticket, “you’re not going to take back the Senate. There’s not any way, because everybody’s going to be tarred with the same brush. We will probably lose seats in the House.”
In private conversations, other Democrats are more succinct. One House Democrat said colleagues from swing districts are scared by the prospects of a Sanders nomination, while another said moderates are increasingly concerned that a Sanders candidacy would devastate their prospects for winning the White House and retaining the House. The lawmakers insisted on anonymity to describe private conversations.
Democrats’ jitters have Republicans rubbing their hands in delight.
“It’s every Republican’s dream come true,” Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a former leader of the House GOP’s campaign committee, said of a possible Sanders nomination.
Republicans face an uphill fight in capturing control of the House, which Democrats lead 232-197, with one independent and five vacancies. The GOP controls the Senate 53-47 and is favored to retain its majority.
Biden supporters are happy to use apprehension about Sanders’ impact on the party’s strength in Congress as a tool for drumming up support.
Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., who’s endorsed Biden, said if Sanders were nominated, Democrats from moderate districts “might actually have to run away from our nominee to get elected.” And he added, “It’s highly unlikely that Bernie Sanders will moderate his views, either.”
Congressional Democrats have little to gain by openly disparaging the man who could well be their presidential nominee, and they say they’re uncertain what they could do that would be effective. Any move to derail his candidacy that could be traced back to them would undoubtedly enrage Sanders and his impassioned supporters and risk the fury that split the party in 2016, when some Sanders backers never supported Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee.