WASHINGTON — As Bernie Sanders emerges as the leader in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, his rise is generating fears among centrist Democrats that the apparent leftward shift of their party could cost them not only a chance to retake the White House, but also their hold on the majority in the House of Representatives and their shot at winning the Senate.
The anxiety is particularly acute on Capitol Hill among a small but politically important group of freshman Democrats who helped their party win control of the House in 2018 by flipping Republican seats in districts that President Donald Trump won in 2016. Now, they fear that having a self-declared democratic socialist at the top of the ticket could doom their reelection chances in November.
Members of the group of about three dozen — often called “front-liners” or “majority-makers”— have toiled to carve out political identities distinct from their party’s progressive base, and most are already facing competitive reelection challenges from Republicans who bill them as radicals who have empowered a far-left agenda in Congress.
“I’m the first Democrat to win in my district since 1958,” said Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, one of the front-liners who is backing his home state senator, Amy Klobuchar, in the presidential contest. “I attracted a lot of independent and moderate Republican support, many of whom probably voted for a Democrat for the first time in a long time. And while I respect Bernie Sanders as a senator, as a candidate, his candidacy is very challenging for people who come from districts like mine.”
Concern is also building among centrists in the Senate, where Democrats already face an uphill battle in their quest to flip the four Republican seats they would need to regain the majority. They are eyeing seats in North Carolina, Arizona, Colorado and Maine — states where Sanders’ calls for a political revolution may not fare well with voters.
Democrats must also defend centrists like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Tina Smith of Minnesota, who are up for reelection. Smith, who is also backing Klobuchar, said the party needed someone who “can bring people along, up and down the ballot.” Shaheen, who has not endorsed any candidate, said she was not concerned by Sanders but sounded frustrated Wednesday by the suggestion that he had won big in her state.
“He did not win big!” she exclaimed. (Sanders took about 26% of the vote, just ahead of Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.)
In the House, eight of the front-line Democrats, including Reps. Haley Stevens of Michigan, Max Rose of New York and Lucy McBath of Georgia, have endorsed Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor. Others, including several military veterans — Reps. Conor Lamb and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, and Elaine Luria of Virginia — are coalescing around former Vice President Joe Biden.
Some are reluctant to publicly articulate their fears of a Sanders nomination, not wanting to call attention to the divisions within their party or risk alienating a potential nominee, but several of them privately described a sense of foreboding that has set in over the past two weeks as Sanders has emerged as the top finisher in the first two contests of the Democratic race.
“There is a growing concern among especially those of us on the front lines that we will not only lose the White House but the House of Representatives,” one of them said in an interview, insisting on anonymity to avoid criticizing a potential nominee.
Two former chairmen of the party’s House campaign arm — Steve Israel, who has endorsed Biden, and Rahm Emanuel, who is not backing any candidate — say the lawmakers are right to be concerned. Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, led Democrats to retake the House in 2006 using a playbook he called “metropolitan majority” — a “center-left” agenda aimed at uniting urban and suburban voters.
“Back in 2006, we created Red to Blue as a political entity,” Emanuel said, referring to a program Democrats made to help candidates flip Republican seats. “We never established or created ‘blue to deep blue.’ That’s not how you create majorities.”
He said governorships, the Senate and state legislatures — which govern redistricting and thus exert powerful influence over the political makeup of Congress — are also at stake.
“Every time we have won the White House, gained seats in the House and the Senate and the state capitals, we have run based on a model that has proved itself in presidential years, and off presidential years,” he said. “The question is: Do you want to take that playbook and throw it out?”
Israel sees two reasons for concern: The race for president will be won or lost in seven swing states and about 20 to 30 swing counties. And the “down ballot effect” — the tendency for the candidate at the top of the ticket to dominate voters’ assessments of other candidates of his or her party — is very strong in a presidential race.
“Donald Trump will paint every Democrat — whether they’re running for U.S. Senate or county sheriff — as a socialist, as a ‘Bernie Sanders socialist,’” he said, “and that’s a tough deal in a lot of these districts.”
Still, the race is young. While Sanders won in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, the majority of voters — about 53% — picked a trio of more moderate candidates: Biden, Buttigieg and Klobuchar. And three candidates — Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado; Deval Patrick, former governor of Massachusetts; and businessman Andrew Yang — just dropped out.
“This race is going to narrow,” Israel said. “The two lanes ultimately will be far-left and center-left, but right now the opening arguments seem to favor the pragmatic lane.”
Party leaders insist their front-liners will be fine no matter who is at the top of the ticket. Rep. Cheri Bustos, who leads the House Democrats’ campaign arm — and represents a district in Illinois won by Trump — insisted the discussion is premature.
“We have a long way to go before we know who the nominee is,” she told reporters in the Capitol.
But for many of these lawmakers, the decision about whom to support is not one they can put off. The front-liners are coveted surrogates in their home districts because they have the backing of the independents that any Democrat would need to take on Trump.
They also are fielding frequent appeals from the contenders for their endorsements. So with less than a month to go before Super Tuesday, they are feeling pressed to decide on a candidate — one with the best chance of toppling Sanders so that they do not have to run alongside him.
Many are also raising money furiously. Rose, for instance, has already raised more than $3 million, an extraordinary amount for a freshman. In interviews, he and Stevens steered clear of even mentioning Sanders’ name.
But in explaining why she endorsed Bloomberg, Stevens made it clear she did not believe that Sanders, the progressive from Vermont, had a profile that would appeal to her constituents.
“What I think is going to resonate in my district is somebody who is a world-class business leader or a government leader,” she said, “somebody who has led a city that is bigger than the populations of certain states.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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