RICHMOND, Va., and WASHINGTON ― When the final votes are tallied on Super Tuesday this week, Democrats in Congress are hoping that, among the many questions that could be answered, one of them will be this: Would Bernie Sanders really be a drag for Democrats down the ballot during the general election?
Several of the 14 states voting on Super Tuesday — California, Virginia, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas — were key to Democrats flipping the House in 2018. Despite Vice President Joe Biden’s impressive win in South Carolina on Saturday, Sanders looks poised to win almost all of them. And the number of delegates Sanders picks up Tuesday could catapult the Vermont senator into an insurmountable lead in the Democratic primary.
And that’s beginning to worry some of the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress.
Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who himself represents a safely Democratic district, told The Hill this week that some lawmakers are “very worried that if Bernie becomes the nominee, that it’ll be a disaster for them in their own districts.” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) told HuffPost on Friday that, if Sanders were the nominee, it would make it “much more difficult” for front-line Democrats.
“His being at the top of the ticket puts in jeopardy down-ballot races,” Brown said.
A former campaign aide to Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who ousted tea party Republican Dave Brat in 2018, put it in no uncertain words: “I think Bernie is going to crush us and we are going to get hosed.”
“It’s going to be ‘socialist, socialist, socialist,’” the former aide said, noting that winning Spanberger’s district took bringing in moderate, Trump-hating Republicans — voters that wouldn’t mind a Republican-held House being a “check” on someone like Sanders.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) was perhaps the most vocal in the past week. He told CNN on Friday that a lot of people are concerned Democrats could have someone atop the ticket who would cause “down-ballot carnage.”
Whoever is at the top of the ticket is going to be 1,000% better than Trump. Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.)
Democrats have some cause for concern. For one, Donald Trump won 31 districts that are currently represented by Democrats in the House. And the margin for many of the races that handed Democrats the House majority was less than a few percentage points. Democrats won those races, in part, by appealing to “country club Republicans,” like the ones found in Orange County, California, and the Virginia suburbs.
But if the Democratic presidential nominee is Sanders, are Democrats really doomed?
HuffPost found plenty of vulnerable Democrats who weren’t nearly as worried about Sanders as some of their colleagues are.
Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.) won his seat in 2018; his district is rated R+1 by Cook Political Report, meaning it has leaned slightly more Republican than the nation as a whole in recent elections. Levin told HuffPost that he was going to run his race and call for unity in the party. “Whoever is at the top of the ticket is going to be 1,000% better than Trump,” Levin said, noting that he plans to run on local issues.
Another California Democrat, Rep. Gil Cisneros, who won his district by less than 8,000 votes, had a similar message. He said whoever the Democratic nominee is, Democrats in his district would support that person, and when we asked if he thought Sanders would be a drag on his reelection, he wouldn’t take the bait.
“I need to focus on my race, getting my message out, that’s what’s going to help my race,” he said.
Even when we gave Democrats anonymity to talk about their concerns with Sanders atop the ticket, the panic didn’t seem to be so widespread. The most alarmed comment we received was from one Democrat who said Biden would make races “a little bit easier” and Sanders might make them “a little tougher.”
“Republicans are going to try to nationalize the race,” this member said, “and [Democratic] House members are going to try to localize.”
Vulnerable House Democrats will certainly try to localize their races and potentially ignore Sanders at the top of the ticket ― while also potentially benefiting from the increased Democratic turnout that Sanders could provide. But strategists also believe Sanders could make inroads with some of the crossover voters who helped Democrats take back the House in 2018.
“He will need to do more to reach out — particularly the suburban women who were the benchmark to our taking over the House in 2018,” said Guy Cecil, a former Hillary Clinton strategist and the chairman of Priorities USA, the largest Democratic Party super PAC.
In a packed Richmond, Virginia, arena on Thursday, 4,700 mostly young people showed up for a midday weekday Sanders rally just miles from the congressional district Spanberger flipped two years ago. The senator and his campaign have already anticipated the questions they’ll be getting on electability. Sanders’ stump speech now includes the point that he has beaten Trump in 47 of 50 national head-to-head polls. Two days later, Sanders held another rally of 3,500 people in Virginia Beach, freshman Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria’s district.
“There was a poll in Virginia that showed him beating Trump by 9 points, more than any other candidate,” said Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Sanders’ campaign. “You can’t win Virginia by 9 points in a head-to-head with Donald Trump unless you are doing extremely well with suburban women.”
In the crowd, Mary Reed, a 37-year-old from Chesterfield, Virginia — a city split between Spanberger’s district and that of Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) — said she doesn’t buy into all this fretting around Sanders’ electability in her hometown.
“I’m pretty middle of the road as far as my beliefs — I have a lot of conservative beliefs — I’m a conceal carry permit holder,” Reed said. “I worked 14 years in a career making $15 an hour with a high-deductible insurance plan. I tore a ligament in my ankle and went $9,000 in debt but I only made $25,000 a year.”
“Do the math on that,” she continued, “it doesn’t work out. I just don’t think it’s fair for anyone to be in that situation.”
Reed exemplifies the kind of voter Sanders argues makes up his base of support — one that can rally around ideas like “Medicare for All” regardless of partisan leanings.
There are two theories for how Democrats can win in November. One is that they have to moderate their positions to not alienate conservative-leaning voters tired of Trump. The other is that a young and increasingly diverse working suburban population can rally around a progressive agenda like Sanders’. The answer very well may be that it depends on the district.
“You look back at what the Democratic Party did while Barack Obama was in office, you had people running to the mythical middle over and over and over again and we lose,” said Virginia state Del. Lee Carter, a democratic socialist who was elected in Manassas, Virginia — the slightly more Democratic region close to Spanberger’s district. “If people have the choice between a halfway Republican and a whole Republican, they are going to pick the whole Republican.”
When you have to tell voters ‘no no no, let me explain’ then you are down a rabbit hole. The danger here is the amount of time explaining the word [socialist]. Abbi Easter, Virginia Democratic Party’s 7th Congressional District chair
Abbi Easter, the Virginia Democratic Party’s 7th Congressional District chair, said she sees Spanberger having to localize to win if a more progressive candidate is at the top of the ticket.
“In politics, it’s always a harder climb when you have to explain to voters or persuade voters,” Easter said of questions about Sanders’ policies and political identification. “When you have to tell voters ‘no no no, let me explain’ then you are down a rabbit hole. The danger here is the amount of time explaining the word [socialist]. We would be in a much stronger place if we were just saying you are not going to have to choose between a meal and a prescription.”
But at least some Democrats see a reality where Sanders could help down-ticket Democrats.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) has endorsed Sanders and comes from a district that has recently performed 33 percentage points more Democratic than the national average, according to Cook Political Report. She said Sanders has shown an ability to increase turnout across the states. “What we know is that, when turnout increases, Democrats win,” Jayapal said.
Still, turnout has been a bit mixed in the early primary states. Though it should be noted that primary turnout is not an indicator of general election turnout, it is a gauge of enthusiasm.
Iowa was at about the same level as the 2016 caucuses (170,000), but significantly down from the 2008 caucuses (240,000). That’s not a great sign for Democrats. But turnout in the Democratic New Hampshire primary was at its highest ever, vulnerable Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) pointed out to HuffPost. (The New York Times noted that though turnout was higher, the percentage of eligible voters who participated was similar to 2008, due to the state’s growing voting-age population.)
“There’s tremendous enthusiasm in New Hampshire for change, and you saw that in the results of the Democratic primary,” Pappas said. When we asked what effect Sanders might have on his race, Pappas deflected by saying he was more focused on what he could do in Congress.
South Carolina was also curious. It had a larger turnout than 2016, but still slightly below 2008. And, of course, Biden’s big win in the state makes it difficult to determine enthusiasm for Sanders.
But Super Tuesday will be the first real look at turnout across the nation. If voters come out in record numbers for Sanders, it could be a sign that Sanders might be able to drive new voters to the polls. If turnout is more like Iowa, it could be a sign that the reservations from some Democrats are warranted.
For Brown, the turnout question was particularly important in those vulnerable districts, like the ones that Democrats flipped in California and Virginia.
“The question, though, is the enthusiasm level among voters and how it energizes in these front-line, purple, red-to-blue districts,” the congressman said. “How it energizes Republicans to come out and vote against that member of Congress.”
“Bernie enjoys a lot of support from the younger voters who, you know, we love them dearly, but they consistently underparticipate in elections,” he added.
Matt Fuller reported from Washington; Tara Golshan reported from Richmond, Virginia.