Republicans like their chances of keeping the Senate in 2020. But there’s one thing they think would all but seal the deal: Bernie Sanders as the Democratic presidential nominee.
Some GOP incumbents are practically cheering him on, confident there’s no way a self-described democratic socialist could win a general election against President Donald Trump and that he’d drag other Democrats on the ballot with him.
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“It would be good for us to have a nominee like that,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who is up for reelection next year and sounded downright giddy about the prospect of Sanders representing Democrats at the top of the ticket.
Trump and the Senate GOP have explicitly designed their 2020 strategy around Sanders, beating the anti-socialism drum incessantly and attempting to tether every Democrat on the ballot to what they call a creep away from capitalism and toward collectivism.
And though he’s consistently trailing former Vice President Joe Biden at this early stage, some top Republicans said they sincerely believe Sanders has a legitimate shot at winning.
“A lot of people think that in that crowded field, he could break out,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
He added: “If we can run a race against a person that’s an out-of-the-closet socialist and promoting socialist ideas, it’s a great contrast for us.”
The strategy shows Republicans are much more comfortable talking about Sanders and tying other Democrats to his brand of socialism than they are in defending this year’s meager legislative agenda. But Republicans could be making the same mistake Democrats made four years ago, when Trump launched his presidential campaign and they began salivating over the prospect of a Senate sweep.
That misunderstanding of Trump’s appeal is now the subject of repeated examination by Democratic politicians and strategists.
“I would suggest they underestimate me at their own peril and I hope they do,” Sanders said in an interview. Republicans are unlikely to run on their own forward-leaning agenda, he added, “So they have to figure out some boogeyman that they think they can run against.”
Though Republicans will try to attach the socialist label to anyone who endorses sweeping expansions of government health care programs and climate change legislation, GOP lawmakers and Trump allies concede it would work much better against Sanders than it would against some of his rivals.
Biden is widely regarded as one of the most centrist Democrats in the field, a pragmatic Democrat who cut deals with Republicans for decades — at times to the chagrin of liberals like Sanders.
“It’s probably [more] effective against somebody who is actually a socialist,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close Trump ally who said the president is eager to run against socialism. Trying to tag Biden as a socialist would be a taller order, Graham acknowledged, though he predicted Biden would be pulled to the left.
Independent voters tired of Trump might hold their nose and back him again if Sanders were the alternative, the GOP logic goes, in turn lifting vulnerable Republican senators to victory. However, one Democrat working on Senate races said a Sanders nomination could help individual Democratic congressional candidates assert their independence from their party in key races.
Democrats have a clear but narrow path to the Senate majority that hinges largely on picking up seats in states like Colorado, Maine, North Carolina, and Arizona, and defending incumbents in Michigan, Alabama, New Hampshire and Virginia. Democrats need to net at least three Senate seats to win the chamber.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is urging at-risk Republicans to emphasize to voters that the GOP Senate is a “firewall against socialism in this country.” And apparently they’re listening.
Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, perhaps the most endangered Republican up next year, is lacing into Sanders’ proposal to let prisoners vote as “not who America is” and the “antithesis [of] our values.” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), up for reelection next year, said his fortunes will improve if he gets to run against Sanders because he can cast his race as “a referendum between free enterprise and socialism.”
In the interview, Sanders dared the GOP to keep coming after him. He said Gardner is “no doubt” being backed by Big Business and said that his brand of politics will help the party’s chances of taking back the Senate, not hurt them.
“Honestly, I do,” Sanders said. “If you have strong progressive candidates we’ll do just fine,” Sanders said.
Democrats also could benefit from some aspects of the socialism debate, particularly on health care. Though Republicans tag ideas like Medicare for All as radical, Democrats are eager for Senate races to revolve around health care, which polls indicate is a consistent weak spot for the GOP.
Yet some Democratic senators said privately they agreed with Republicans that a Sanders nomination would be too easy for the GOP to demagogue. Some fretted about the down-ballot effect he would have on Senate and House races if he were to win the nomination. They declined to speak publicly because it’s early in the race and they didn’t want to exacerbate tensions within the party.
Most GOP lawmakers said they think Sanders would lose in a general election. But Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was vanquished by Trump in 2016, conceded that the Sanders phenomenon is real and said he’ll work “vigorously” to stop it.
“It is entirely possible that the American people would vote for an avowed socialist,” Cruz said. “We are a closely divided country. If Bernie were the nominee, he could win.”
Other Republican senators cited Warren as the Democratic candidate who, other than Sanders, is most susceptible to the socialist label. Warren is unabashedly liberal but has stressed that she’s a capitalist “to the bone.” In a brief interview, she seemed unbothered by the efforts to link her to Sanders.
“Republicans are just in make-believe land. They want to try to sell Americans on the notion that access to affordable health care is some foreign plot,” Warren said. “It hasn’t worked and it’s not going to work.”
Two moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Jon Tester of Montana, both acknowledged that the GOP’s strategy of painting the entire Democratic Party as in lockstep with Sanders could work in a national election. But Tester, who won reelection in deep red Montana last year, said Republicans are merely deflecting, given their own heartburn over Trump.
“If they think it works, they’ll do the attack [on Sanders]. I think it’s a total false narrative,” Tester said. “They certainly can’t talk about what the president’s doing because I think most of them, if they’re honest with themselves, wouldn’t be supporting him.”