Republicans against Trump open to voting for a moderate Democrat — just not Sanders

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Republicans searching for an alternative to Donald Trump say they are open to casting a ballot for a Democrat in the 2020 general election, but they will not vote for Bernie Sanders if the progressive senator is the nominee.

McClatchy interviewed two dozen former Republican members of Congress, Republican Party operatives and conservative activists who said they will not vote for Trump in November’s election because his behavior and rhetoric is unbecoming of a president and the policies he has pursued in office are an affront to their principles or values.

Most said among the Democratic field they cannot vote for Sanders, who is actively campaigning for higher taxes and big government policies like Medicare for All. They especially take issue with the rising democratic socialist’s past praise for the governments of Cuba and Nicaragua and his refusal to call Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro a dictator.

“Republicans are not going to vote for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. They’re just not. They’re too far left. They just won’t,” said former Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood, a registered Republican who said he cast a ballot in the 2020 primary, but not for Trump, and is supporting Biden for president.

With Joe Biden’s political future in question after weaker-than-expected finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, disaffected Republicans remain hopeful that a more moderate candidate like Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar or Michael Bloomberg will beat Sanders in the Democratic primary.

Establishment Democrats have been vocal about their concerns that Sanders’ candidacy could lead to decreased voter turnout and disunity within their party.

Current and former Republicans who spoke to McClatchy said Sanders — and to a lesser extent Warren — does not appeal to them and Democrats are leaving votes on the table if they choose him.

“I will not vote for Bernie Sanders. I could never bring myself to vote for Bernie Sanders, and so I have to look at those other candidates and say, is there something there that I could attach myself to,” said Darren White, an Albuquerque radio show host and former New Mexico congressional candidate who said he has Ronald Reagan’s signature tattooed on his ankle.

Republicans in interviews warned that a Sanders or Warren nomination could end up with those who might be inclined to vote for a Democrat sitting out the election entirely. They could also vote for down-ballot Republicans and leave their preference in the presidential race unchecked or support a viable third-party candidate, should one emerge.

Most of the Republicans who spoke to McClatchy said they are considering voting for Buttigieg, Klobuchar, Bloomberg and Biden.

“I saw Joe Biden last week, and the guy’s being totally propped up, and it looks like he’s not going to make it,” former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen said. “But the republic will survive four years of Joe Biden.”

Linda Chavez, a likely voter in Colorado who held a number of high-ranking positions in the Reagan administration, said she could “easily vote for Biden” and would be comfortable casting a ballot for the other moderates. While she would disagree with them on many policies, she said, “I believe right now that the country needs to return to normal.”

Republicans recognize that they would have to grapple with voting for a Democrat whose policies they opposed. For renegade Republicans and Republicans in exile, that’s a price they say they are willing to pay to avert four more years of Trump holding office.

For example, Bloomberg’s pledge to institute universal background checks is opposed by firearm enthusiasts and Republicans who are against a national gun registry.

But Chavez, who said she owns a firearm, said his proposed reforms are not a deal-breaker for her in this election.

Climate change is another issue on which Republicans and Democrats generally don’t see eye to eye.

But for Claudine Schneider, a Republican who represented Rhode Island in Congress and is now organizing former federal lawmakers to put pressure on incumbents to abide by traditionally Republican principles, climate change is a key issue, and it’s one that has contributed to her break with Trump.

A registered Republican in Colorado now, Schneider said she personally prefers Bloomberg because he is an effective manager and has made combating climate change a priority.

Bloomberg is focusing his campaign on Super Tuesday states, including Colorado. A campaign spokeswoman said their efforts are focused on reaching voters Democrats “lost touch with in previous cycles.”

“We’re talking to all kinds of voters everywhere, and it spans a wide gamut,” said Bloomberg national spokeswoman Erin McPike.

‘Future Former Republican Voters’

Democratic campaigns see an opportunity to win over Republicans who don’t want to vote for Trump, and some of them are actively pursuing them.

Biden’s campaign has welcomed such Republicans into his camp. “Joe Biden is the only candidate in this race who can assemble the kind of broad, diverse coalition that the Democratic nominee will need to win back the White House,” Biden’s national press secretary TJ Ducklo said in a statement.

“That includes the base of the party, African American and Latino voters, but also means reaching independents and disaffected Republicans who are determined to defeat the most corrupt president in modern history,” he said.

Going even further, Buttigieg’s campaign noted the candidate’s appeals to “future former Republican voters” are baked into his stump speech. The campaign is currently running targeted digital ads in Super Tuesday states in counties that voted for Obama but switched to Trump in 2016.

Also getting a second look from disaffected Republican voters is Klobuchar, who has argued that she would be able to win upper-midwestern states that narrowly went for Trump in 2016 and are demographically similar to her home state of Minnesota.

The thrice-elected Minnesota senator is approaching her presidential campaign the way she has every other campaign she’s run, a spokeswoman said.

“Amy’s message in general is something that just appeals,” said Carlie Waibel, a spokeswoman for Klobuchar, of tactical outreach to Republicans.

In Klobuchar’s bid to overtake Buttigieg, the 59-year-old’s argument that the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is too much of a newcomer to the national stage and has never held federal office like Trump, seems to have resonated with some Republicans.

Christine Todd Whitman, an administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under former President George W. Bush, told McClatchy in an interview, “We’ve seen what happens when you have on the job training in the White House. It just doesn’t serve us very well. It’s not what we need. It’s not what we want.”

She said she would vote for Buttigieg over Trump, with one caveat — “I hope he would have enough sense to bring in some really good people around him.”

For several candidates, support from former Republicans could be the key to boosting their support in the Democratic primary. Buttigieg and Klobuchar are polling in the single digits at 8 percent and 7 percent, respectively, in a new survey. Sanders has meanwhile opened up a double-digit lead nationally, according to the Washington Post-ABC News poll that came out on Wednesday.

At 32 percent, the Vermont senator is significantly outpacing his nearest competitors — Biden, who had 16 percent support, Bloomberg, who polled at 14 percent and Warren, who was at 12 percent.

Trump’s campaign has repeatedly sought to portray all of the president’s potential opponents as far left.

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the campaign, told McClatchy that no matter which Democrat is on the ballot, the nominee will push for a government takeover of health care and embrace of the Green New Deal — two policies that are in direct contradiction with fiscal conservatism and limited government.

“That’s what they’re all running on, so it doesn’t matter,” Murtaugh said. “If they’re looking for someone who is not far left, they ain’t gonna find one.”

The Sanders and Warren campaigns after repeated requests did not provide any comment.

The Trump campaign said that record-breaking turnout in Iowa and in New Hampshire, where the incumbent president performed better than his predecessors when they were up for reelection, is evidence that the president’s reelection effort is in good shape.

“President Trump is historically popular within the Republican Party,” Murtaugh said. “That said, he is also expanding the pool of voters who support him. We have actual data, not just theories or joyful speculation by his political rivals.”

Republicans actively seeking to defeat Trump in the election, however, say they see a silver lining in that data when they look at the New Hampshire primary. Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld was able to win 9.1 percent of the primary electorate, and nearly 14,000 votes, dragging down the percentage of the Republican primary vote that Trump won to 86 percent.

Reed Galen, a political strategist on the advisory board of The Lincoln Project — a group of national Republicans working to defeat Trump — is trying to convince voters in swing states to defect from Trump to the eventual Democratic nominee in the general election.

“If we move 1 percent of voters,” Galen said, “from either the Trump side or staying at home to an alternative, whoever the nominee is, not only does Trump lose, he loses in a landslide.”

Trump is at risk of losing much more than 1 percent of the voters who backed him in the previous election, said Beth Hansen, who was campaign manager for John Kasich when he ran against Trump in 2016.

She said that good candidates can expect to win 90 percent of their own bases and 10 percent of their opponents’ bases. Depending on the area and anticipated turnout, contenders may also need to heavily court independents.

While monolithic support for partisan candidates is unrealistic, Hansen said of the 2020 landscape, “I see it and believe that there are Republicans who more than usual won’t vote for Donald Trump.”

Hansen said Trump benefited at the end of the 2016 primary season from the votes of Kasich and Jeb Bush backers who were never going to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton, but he has done little to hold onto their support in 2020.

Opportunity for Democrats

A leading voice in the movement among Republicans to oust the president, Sarah Longwell, a co-founder of the anti-Trump umbrella group Defending Democracy Together, has conducted more than 25 focus groups across the United States in the last year, including in Ohio, Colorado, Arizona and Pennsylvania, of those “reluctant Trump voters” and undecided Republicans.

Longwell said her research has found that a Democrat with a “mainstream and uniting message” such as Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg and Klobuchar could earn the support of many of those voters in the general election.

“I think they all have a real opportunity to pick up a large group of disaffected Republican voters, specifically the college-educated suburban voters, who walked away from the Republican Party in ‘18,” she said.

“If that alternative is Bernie Sanders,” Longwell said, “that’s a very long road for somebody who previously considered themselves a conservative to walk. And I think for a lot of voters, that’s too far.”

Some of the Republicans said they would be likely to support a third-party candidate, if one would emerge that they could back, even though the likelihood of victory would be slim.

Former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford said he had been approached about a third-party bid following his withdrawal from the GOP presidential primary, and while he isn’t interested, he hopes someone else does run and preferably someone who campaigns on reining in the national debt and deficit.

An independent candidate isn’t likely to qualify for the general election debates, for which there is a floor of 15 percent national support to participate, which would make it “extremely difficult” for a third-party candidate to win, said Whitman, a former governor of New Jersey. She said she plans to vote for Weld in the Republican primary and hopes for a Bloomberg-Klobuchar ticket in the general election.

Weld in 2016 was on a ticket with Gary Johnson as the former New Mexico governor’s running mate. They did not reach the threshold to debate and won 4.5 million ballots and a little more than 3 percent of the national popular vote, but still the attempt was one of the most successful third-party bids in modern American history.

White, the New Mexico radio host and a Trump critic, was an aide to Johnson and said he remains a registered Republican but cannot see himself being embraced by the GOP after Trump’s tenure in office.

“I think we’re going to be treated like a bad divorce. Can you really ever be friends again?” he said.

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