Senate Democrats are feeling queasy about their party’s presidential primary after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) seized front-runner status by winning the New Hampshire primary, while former Vice President Joe Biden stumbled to a fifth-place finish.
Democratic senators have been careful not to criticize Sanders publicly, fearing that it could undermine party unity heading into the November general election, which they view as a must-win contest.
But they have serious questions about the electability of their self-described democratic socialist colleague and the problems he may create down-ballot for vulnerable Senate candidates.
Several of Sanders’s signature proposals, such as “Medicare for All,” tuition-free college, cancelling student debt and the sweeping Green New Deal, don’t even have support from a majority of Democratic senators.
“I think there’s a substantial element of people worried about where we’re going,” said a Democratic senator, who requested anonymity to comment on discussions with colleagues.
Asked about Sanders’s reputation as a lawmaker on the far left of the nation’s ideological spectrum, the lawmaker said, “Senators worry about that.”
“Politicians worry all the time,” the source added.
Democrats don’t want to speak out because there’s a growing chance that Sanders will be the nominee.
“There is a real sense that whoever gets it, we’ve got to be behind him. This election is too important,” the senator said.
Other Democrats are downplaying Sanders’s recent victories but fretting about whether he will embrace one of his rivals as the party’s eventual nominee if Sanders loses the contest.
“We all hope to God he will follow what he said last night in New Hampshire, that we’re all on the same team and it’s all of our responsibility to bring whatever we can to help the nominee,” said another Democratic senator.
Some Democrats still think that Sanders failed to fully embrace Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 and blame him for lingering resentment among some of his supporters. They believe this hurt voter turnout and helped President Trump win the White House.
The democratic socialist label attached to Sanders comes up with Democrats from more conservative states.
Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who is up for reelection this year in a state that Trump carried by 28 points, said, “I don’t agree with the socialism label.”
He also said it’s too soon to assume Sanders is going to wind up as the nominee, telling reporters: “I still believe there is a long way to go here.”
While Jones said Sanders’s backers are “important voices,” he added, “I don’t think they’re going to carry the day.”
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told Politico Wednesday: “If Bernie ends up being one of these frontrunners, he’ll have to moderate. I’m not going socialist. Never been a socialist.”
Biden, who for months was regarded as the Democratic front-runner and the candidate with the best chance of beating Trump in the general election, suffered back-to-back crippling losses in Iowa and New Hampshire.
His losses were especially dispiriting to Democratic lawmakers because he ran lackluster campaigns in both states and fell well short of expectations.
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who is neutral, said Biden “needs a comeback.”
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and other Democratic senators said Biden’s underwhelming performance in Iowa and New Hampshire was a surprise.
“I think everybody thought he would be stronger in Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said. “There’s no question that’s noticeable.”
Durbin acknowledged that “of course” he’s concerned about Republicans’ desire to make the 2020 election a “referendum on socialism,” something Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) pledged to do last year.
“When you get down to the reality of socialism, I’d like to hear Sen. McConnell explain Social Security and Medicare in terms of socialism. The word socialism is an attack on Bernie Sanders, as I see it,” he said.
Republicans are rubbing their hands in anticipation of Sanders winning the Democratic nomination.
Trump appeared to offer a preview glimpse of his potential campaign playbook when he declared at last week’s State of the Union address: “We will never let socialism destroy American health care!” It was a clear reference to Sanders’s Medicare for All plan.
Biden was widely seen by Democratic voters and lawmakers alike heading into the primary as the party’s most electable candidate, based on polls showing him with high name identification and beating Trump in a head-to-head match-up.
Cardin said he’s confident the primary will produce a strong nominee for the fall’s election, but he said Biden supporters have reason to worry.
“If you’re a personal Biden supporter, if you’re locked into Biden, and we have some in Maryland, I’m sure you’re concerned,” he said.
A Democratic senator who requested anonymity to comment on Biden’s disappointing finish in the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire called it “sad” and predicted he would have a tough time winning the nomination because former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is spending heavily in states voting on Super Tuesday.
“It’s really sad about Biden. A lot of people thought he was going to do a lot better, and then he just faded. You hear comments. There’s so much depth of feeling for Biden [in the Senate] because he was there for so many years,” the lawmaker said. “They hope he can be president, but they’re really worried about his performance.”
Bloomberg has spent a third of his television advertising resources in 14 states that will vote on Super Tuesday, according to an Axios report that cited Advertising Analytics data.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed that black voters, a crucial constituency in the Democratic primary, are starting to shift from Biden to Bloomberg. The survey showed African American support for Bloomberg jumping to 22 percent and support for Biden falling to 27 percent.
Biden’s Senate supporters, however, say he can still right his wobbling campaign.
Jones, who has endorsed Biden, said, “I think the media is trying to anoint a nominee at this point when it’s really still pretty early.”
“Bill Clinton lost 10 out of the first 11 primaries in 1992, he went on to be the nominee and the president. Joe is resilient. He has had more bounce-backs in his life than most people could ever dream about, both personally and professionally,” he said.