The prospect of having to defend socialism to their constituents is giving House Democrats in swing districts the heebie-jeebies.
Lawmakers who flipped Republican-held districts in the 2018 elections are growing worried as they ponder their prospects if they head into November with Sen. Bernard Sanders, a self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist, at the top of their ticket.
“There is a lot of time in the primary still,” said Rep. Anthony Brindisi, who flipped a western New York District and has said he wouldn’t be able to back Mr. Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, should either end up as the party’s presidential nominee.
“Less than 1 percent of the country has really spoken on this so far. So we will see what happens in the primary process,” the New York Democrat told The Washington Times. “I have made my thoughts very known that I would prefer to see a moderate candidate atop the ticket.”
The conversations have become much more intense since Mr. Sanders won the New Hampshire primary and garnered the most votes in Iowa’s caucuses — though former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg ended up with more delegates awarded from Iowa.
Party leaders have begun to fret that a Sanders candidacy could cost them control of the House, The New York Times reported.
The lawmakers The Washington Times spoke with said they aren’t hitting the panic button, but all of them are keeping a close eye on the race.
“I mean, obviously we’re going to watch what’s happening in the next couple of races,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan. “I think there’s still a lot of debate about who to vote for and where to go forward, so I just think it’s still too early.”
She has not backed a candidate, but others have picked sides.
Not one of the House Democrats in nearly three dozen competitive races, as rated by the Cook Political Report, is backing Mr. Sanders.
A half-dozen have endorsed former Vice President Joseph R Biden. Five are backing billionaire former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and two are with Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Warren each have the support of one.
Rep. Dean Phillips of Minnesota, who has endorsed home-state Ms. Klobuchar, said Mr. Sanders is playing an important role in the nomination process by pushing ideas and fighting for “people who are voiceless.”
“But I also recognize the consequences of stretching a rubber band too much — it snaps,” Mr. Phillips said. “Sometimes you have to inch it along and I think the country right now is going to be looking for the latter.”
Mr. Sanders’ campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment, but on the campaign trail he argues that his bold plans can expand the universe of voters, bringing new people into the electorate — and that movement could aid Democrats down-ticket, too.
That theory hasn’t panned out in Iowa and New Hampshire.
While there was a slight uptick in turnout in New Hampshire, Mr. Sanders didn’t run away with the contest, suggesting that he wasn’t responsible for the new record number. Iowa, meanwhile, didn’t break any records.
Mr. Sanders claimed he increased young voter turnout in Iowa compared to 2008, but Factcheck.org called that “pure spin,” pointing out that 10,000 fewer younger voters participated this year.
Nowhere is Mr. Sanders’ democratic socialist view more prominent than his “Medicare for All” government-run health plan, which would cancel Americans’ current private insurance.
Those are exactly the sorts of issues that could scare voters, said Larry Jacobs, professor of politics at the University of Minnesota.
“Democrats running in competitive seats are terrified of Bernie,” Mr. Jacobs said. “He confirms the charges of President Trump of a socialist running as president for the Dems and threatens to take away their health care.”
Mr. Sanders does have some high-profile House backers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
She told The Times there will be concern about the party closing ranks no matter who emerges as the nominee.
“Like if Klobuchar or whomever was the front runner right now, there will be a lot of stress as to whether progressives would unify,” the New York Democrat said. “Similarly with Bernie being the front runner, there’s going to be stress around more conservatives rallying behind that nominee.”
Republicans have gleefully watched the hand-wringing from the sidelines. On Wednesday they circulated the New York Times piece about potentially losing control of the House.
And GOP operatives are targeting moderates who say they would back Mr. Sanders if he’s the party’s nominee, saying they’ll have to defend their fealty to socialism.
“Vulnerable Democrats are seeing the same thing we are: Democrats’ toxic socialist agenda will cost them their majority,” said Michael McAdams, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.
A Gallup poll this week suggested the attack could work: Only 45% of Americans surveyed said they could support a socialist candidate.
Most Democrats said they could, while only a smattering of Republicans said they could. Among the all-important independents, though, just 45% said a socialist candidate could earn their vote.
• Alex Swoyer contributed to this report.