WASHINGTON – Sen. Bernie Sanders warned that in his quest for the White House, he would not only take on Republicans and President Donald Trump but the Democratic establishment.
Now that Sanders has found success in the first three presidential contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, some Democrats have begun reckoning with the idea that Sanders, a democratic socialist running on liberal ideals such as "Medicare for All," may be the 2020 Democratic nominee instead of a more moderate candidate. For them, the consequences could extend beyond the presidential contest.
Moderate Democrats worry that Sanders' name at the top of the general election ticket would make it harder for Democrats running for Congress, which could threaten their majority in the House and make it nearly impossible to take the Senate.
"I get that Team Trump is going to go after whoever we nominate, but if we’re going to go with a socialist, it’s like we’re leading with our chin," Democratic strategist Jim Manley said. "It’s going to be so easy to demonize the entire ballot."
Democrats vying for Senate seats and the House Democrats who won in districts Trump carried in 2016 will have to "fight like hell to escape the connotation of the socialist thing, which is going to be awfully hard," Manley said.
Constituents 'don't want socialism'
Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., an endangered Democrat in the Senate, said he will differentiate himself from whoever is at the top of the ticket. Though Sanders has had success, the nomination is still up for grabs, Jones said, and predicting who will lead the ticket in November is like "walking up to a roulette wheel."
"We're gonna make sure we do all the right things to make sure that my race is my race," Jones said, highlighting his focus on issues important to his constituents in Alabama. "I've differentiated myself since I've got here. I think the one thing about my two years in the Senate is that people are pretty clear that while I am a Democrat, I vote my conscience No. 1, and I vote what I think is in the best interest of the people of Alabama."
Across the country in swing districts, House members have pushed back on Sanders, criticizing his policies and praise for some aspects of Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Sanders told CBS' "60 Minutes" it was "unfair to simply say everything is bad" in communist Cuba. "When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?" Sanders said.
Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., who represents a swing district and a large Cuban American community in Miami-Dade, tweeted that the senator's comments were "absolutely unacceptable."
"The Castro regime murdered and jailed dissidents, and caused unspeakable harm to too many South Florida families," she wrote on Twitter. "To this day, it remains an authoritarian regime that oppresses its people, subverts the free press, and stifles a free society."
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., called Sanders' remarks "outrageous."
“I'm sure all of those who died at Castro's hands and were shot at firing squads, all those who were tortured, those who live in my state and suffered enormously under the regime, the more than a million people who fled, I'm sure they all think that the literacy program was worth all of that," he said.
"If that's going to be his foreign policy," Menendez said, "then we're doomed."
Some House Democrats trying to hold onto formerly Republican seats said they won't support Sanders because of his agenda.
"South Carolinians don’t want socialism," Rep. Joe Cunningham, who represents a district in South Carolina that went to Trump in 2016, told The Post and Courier. When asked whether he'd support Sanders should he win the nomination, Cunningham said that would not happen. "Bernie Sanders will not be the nominee," he said.
Another endangered House Democrat, Rep. Anthony Brindisi, D-N.Y., said he wouldn't support Sanders or fellow liberal candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., explaining to his local newspaper, the Post-Standard in Syracuse, that it would be "exceedingly difficult" for them to win against Trump.
"I don’t think the people that I represent are looking for a president who supports abolishing private health insurance companies, and I don’t either," Brindisi told the newspaper's editorial board.
Concerns and divisions in the party
Some said the panic over Sanders is overblown.
He has mostly led Trump in head-to-head polling, and this week, Roll Call said it downgraded Republicans' chances of regaining the House because of poor recruitment efforts and strong fundraising by Democrats.
Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which provides a nonpartisan analysis on elections, said although moderates are weary of Sanders' wins, they should take note of Trump's approval ratings.
"Even if Americans ultimately decide [Trump is] the lesser of two evils this fall, there may be some voters who back him only tepidly or anticipate his victory and don’t want his party to have total control of the government," Kondik wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times. "That may work to the benefit of House Democrats, even as they now panic – rightly or wrongly – over the possibility of sharing the ballot with Mr. Sanders."
At a CNN town hall Monday, Sanders took a poll of the audience, asking whether his policy ideas, such as raising the minimum wage and making college tuition free, were too "extreme." Each time, those in the crowd shouted, "No."
"I know if you look at the media, they say, 'Bernie's ideas are radical and extreme,' " he said. "Let me just say I don't think that's true."
Those concerned about what a Sanders nomination could do to Washington hold out hope for the South Carolina primary Saturday and Super Tuesday, when more than a third of the delegates needed to win the nomination are up for grabs.
When asked about a potential Sanders nomination, lawmakers and aides pointed to the upcoming contests and stressed that more moderate candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, would see success.
"I'm looking forward to the results of the next debate and the South Carolina primary, which I think will show that this is a contest between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders," said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who endorsed Biden. "They have competing visions for the future of our party."
Some Democrats have applauded Sanders' wins and the coalition he built to energize a diverse group of supporters that could help in a fight against Trump.
The division in the party is reminiscent of the quarreling among House Democrats last year after the rise of a group of liberal lawmakers.
The four female freshman lawmakers who called themselves "the Squad," which included Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., took on leadership and pressured their colleagues to take more liberal stances on issues such as immigration and climate change. Ocasio-Cortez is one of Sanders' most prominent surrogates on the campaign trail.
The feud ended with liberals largely falling in line behind party leadership, but the intra-party debate this round may be different.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bernie Sanders may have impact on House, Senate races, Democrats say