Moderate Democrats are racing to distance themselves from 2020 front-runner Bernie Sanders in an attempt to protect their House majority and the dozens of swing districts the party won in 2018.
The Vermont senator, who describes himself as a democratic socialist, has embraced policies that are unpopular in Republican-leaning districts. As Sanders collects delegates ahead of South Carolina’s Saturday primary vote, his positive statements about communist Cuba and criticism of Israel has forced centrist Democrats to publicly oppose the person who could be their party’s nominee.
Some House Democrats are promising to block his most progressive proposals, such as abolishing private health insurance, banning natural gas fracking, and ending enforcement of border controls. Florida Representative Stephanie Murphy said the Democratic presidential candidate also needs to be aware how comments and policies will play in the parts of the country that will determine which party controls Congress.
“You cannot condemn Israel and compliment Castro and win in Florida,” she said. “I think that there would be a lot of people in swing districts, that instead of being able to run a campaign that is a referendum on Trump, would have to be running a defensive campaign explaining what socialism is.”
Sanders’s rise has been facilitated by strong grassroots support and moderate primary votes split among several Democrats who used Wednesday’s debate in South Carolina to warn about the political risk of running on the same ticket as a socialist.
“If you want to keep the House in Democratic hands, you might want to check with the people who actually turned the House blue,” former South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg said to Sanders in the debate. “They are running away from your platform as fast as they possibly can.”
Buttigieg is currently second in the delegate count to Sanders, but he’s sharing his centrist pitch to voters with other candidates. Many of the House Democrats who express concern about Sanders have endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden or former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
(Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.)
Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver said Tuesday that Sanders would work with moderates if elected. He disputed the idea that Sanders can’t carry more conservative districts.
“He won an election in a seat that was been Republican for decades. So he understands the need to be able to win over broad cross section of voters, both Democrats, independents and even some Republicans,” Weaver said.
Lawmakers concede they would have little choice but to back Sanders in a match-up against President Donald Trump, but they said explaining that vote to their constituents will be difficult.
Tough Floor Votes
“If Bernie Sanders is our nominee, most Democrats will vote for him because we would like to beat Donald Trump and get rid of Donald Trump,” California Representative Ami Bera said in an interview. “But if he wants to be an effective president he would have to moderate his positions and work with a Democratic House as well as a Republican Senate.”
Centrist Democrats began drawing early contrasts to Sanders, emphasizing House bills that take a more incremental approach to health care, climate change, immigration and improving middle class incomes. Many moderate House Democrats also oppose Sanders proposals to cut military spending and federal jobs guarantee.
New Jersey Democrat Tom Malinowski said nominating Sanders would be a squandered opportunity to unite the country. He said he is counting on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to continue developing a pragmatic agenda that will appeal to voters.
“That is what we should run on and that is what we will run on,” Malinowski said.
House Republican leaders plan to tie vulnerable Democrats to Sanders, seeking to regain the House majority. The minority party can force floor votes on motions related to Sanders policies, putting Democrats in a tough position.
“Given the positions that House Democrats have taken, it’s fitting that Bernie Sanders will be their likely nominee,” Steve Scalise, the second-ranking House Republican, said in an emailed response to questions. “Democrats will pay a price for aligning themselves with him.”
Moderate Democrats say they already had a dress rehearsal last year, responding to questions about progressive colleagues like New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who drew attention for their policies and statements.
In response, Democrats from swing states managed to keep Medicare-for-All and a sweeping climate resolution known as the Green New Deal bottled up in committee. They also forced floor votes to support Israel and successfully pushed for a rule requiring new spending be paid for.
Murphy, a leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition who endorsed Bloomberg, said she plans to highlight budget deficits that have ballooned to $1 trillion under Trump. She and other members of the Democrats Blue Dog caucus will insist that big initiatives be paid for by either revenue increases or spending cuts.
Sanders’s proposals areprojected to cost $53 trillion over the next decade.
“Regardless of who is in the White House, we always fight for fiscal responsibility,” Murphy said. “The debt is actually a huge threat to our national security.”
South Carolina Representative Joe Cunningham, one of the most vulnerable House Democrats, told constituents last week he would oppose Sanders on deficit spending.
“This all goes back if you have a plan, show us how you are going to pay for it,” he said at a College of Charleston event. He said bucking others in his party “are badges of honor for me.”
Cunningham, along with 30 of his party’s 40 House freshmen, is part of the 103-member New Democrat Coalition, a pro-business faction of the party. Pelosi often refers to these members as the “majority makers” since their 2018 wins in Republican-leaning districts are the most important seats for defending Democratic control of the House.
Bera, the California representative who advises the Democratic campaign committee, said running with Sanders at the top of the ticket puts these Democrats at risk in November when all House members will be up for re-election.
“We are already advising our front-line members that they should keep their races local, regardless of who our nominee is,” he said, acknowledging that it won’t be easy.
“It is hard to run away from your presidential nominee,” Bera said, adding that Republicans are looking to use Sanders against Cunningham in South Carolina, Kendra Horn in Oklahoma and Ben McAdams in Utah.
“We know they are already trying to tag someone like Ben McAdams as a socialist,” Bera said. “He is not a socialist. He is a pragmatist and a free market Democrat.”
Bera endorsed Biden, and says he worries about Sanders embracing the “socialist” label.
“That is going to make a lot of the races very difficult,” he said.
California Democrat Scott Peters, who endorsed Bloomberg for president, said Sanders’s plans for a federal jobs guarantee and free college don’t make sense and are politically dangerous for his party. But he said he would vote for Sanders to get rid of Trump.
“This presidential election is going to be decided in six to eight states that aren’t going to vote for someone who goes by the label ‘socialist,’” Peters said. “I think it is going to have some serious down ballot consequences as well.”
Peters said he’ll campaign on plans to reduce the federal deficit and pay for new programs. He said nominating Sanders would complicate everything that moderate Democrats say they stand for.
“This makes it so much harder,” Peters said. “You are going to asked in a town hall who you are voting for. Bernie Sanders. And once you say that you are explaining and when you are explaining, you’re losing.”
— With assistance by Tyler Pager
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