As Bernie Sanders’s momentum builds, down-ballot Democrats move to distance themselves

As reported by Wapo

Former astronaut Mark Kelly, the Democratic Party’s hope for flipping a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona, tried to do no harm this month when he was asked about Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I will ultimately support who the nominee is of the Democratic Party,” he said.

That was enough for Kelly’s Republican rival, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who is trailing him in early polls, to go on the attack. The television spot she debuted days later spent nearly as much time talking about plans by the democratic socialist from Vermont to raise taxes and award new benefits to undocumented immigrants as it did about Kelly.

As Sanders builds what could eventually be an insurmountable delegate lead, many Democratic House and Senate candidates are approaching a dramatic shift in their campaigns, as they recalibrate to include praise of capitalism and distance themselves from the national party. Top campaign strategists from both parties view Sanders’s success as a potentially tectonic event, which could narrow the party’s already slim hopes of retaking the Senate majority and fuel GOP dreams of reclaiming the House, which it lost amid a Democratic romp in 2018.

“I can tell you that there are a lot of down-ballot jitters based on my conversations with my former colleagues,” said former Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), a longtime confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who led congressional election efforts from 2011 to 2015.

“Donald Trump is going to offer the American people this choice: Do you want to continue building the economy or do you want to lurch toward socialism? And that is a real powerful argument in the Democratic districts that Trump won in 2016.”

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With an emphatic victory in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses, Sanders has won two of the first three contests, and lost the third — the Iowa caucuses — in a squeaker. He also holds leads in polls in many of the Super Tuesday states that vote March 3 — a point by which nearly 4 in 10 delegates nationally will have been chosen.

Internal polling and analytics completed last week by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg’s campaign projected that Sanders may be the only presidential candidate to win delegates in every state and district on March 3, delivering him a lead of 350 to 400 out of 1,357 delegates set to be awarded unless race dynamics change, according to a person familiar with the data who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.

Because of Democratic rules that give no delegates to candidates who scores less than 15 percent of the vote in a state or congressional district, Sanders could build a delegate lead far greater than his advantage in the popular vote.

If Democrats are awakening to a recognition that Sanders could pull away from the rest of the field, there is far less consensus about whether his nomination will help President Trump win reelection. Sanders’s power to turn out young and blue-collar voters or suburbanites is not fully tested, the ceiling of Trump’s support is poorly defined in a two-way race and the senator from Vermont has not yet been subjected to a negative paid advertising effort.

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