WASHINGTON — Bernie Sanders could spell trouble for Democratic Senate candidates down the ticket.
Democrats are hoping this fall to wrest control of the U.S. Senate from Mitch McConnell by reclaiming the chamber’s majority. It’s a tough job: Democrats need to net either three or four seats, depending on which party wins the White House.
A major factor that’s expected to shape those Senate races: the Democratic presidential nominee at the top of the ticket.
Former Vice President Joe Biden saw renewed momentum Saturday with a 30-point victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary, but Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders still holds an edge in delegates and hopes to extend that lead with strong showings in several Super Tuesday contests, especially California.
A potential Sanders nomination could make reclaiming the Senate harder this fall, according to Democrats who have led the DSCC in the past.
“What does it do for the person running against Joni Ernst in Iowa? … I don’t think he helps,” said Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska Democratic senator who chaired the DSCC during the 1996 and 1998 election cycles.
For candidates down-ballot, “how much damage is done as a consequence of who [Sanders] is?” Kerrey said. “I don’t know how popular socialism is in Maine or North Carolina or Colorado.” He suspects that it’s “not popular.”
Republicans are already painting the Democratic Party this cycle as socialists on the far left, and Sanders’ status as a self-described “democratic socialist” aids in that narrative.
Sanders’ embrace of policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and decriminalizing U.S. border crossings could put Senate candidates in swing states in a tough spot.
In battleground states like Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Georgia, a Sanders nomination “would really, really hurt those candidates if Bernie Sanders were the nominee,” said J. Bennett Johnston, a former Louisiana Democratic senator who led the DSCC in the 1970s.
“I doubt that there’s a single Senate candidate on the Democratic side who’s campaigning on Medicare for All,” Kerrey said.
The Democrats’ up for reelection this cycle who are backing Sanders’ Medicare for All bill are either in safely Democratic districts or retiring. Senate Democratic hopefuls in close races have also shunned calls for a single national insurance plan.
Colorado Senate hopeful John Hickenlooper called “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal “massive government expansions” last year, when he was still a Democratic presidential contender.
Sarah Gideon, who’s hoping to oust Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins, told Maine Public Radio: “We should allow people who want to buy in to Medicare to do so, but for the people who have private insurance and wish to keep it, that they are able to do that.”
Other swing-state Democratic candidates like Mark Kelly in Arizona, Theresa Greenfield in Iowa and Cal Cunningham in North Carolina have steered clear of Medicare for All, Politico reported. They’ve stuck to talking points that they want to expand Medicaid and protect the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act from GOP efforts to dismantle it.
J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said that a Sanders nomination would likely change how his organization rates various Senate races.
He noted that while Sanders’ polling runs close to Biden in some Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, he hasn’t performed as well in some of the Sun Belt states with critical Senate races in November.
“At least the initial assessment of Bernie as the nominee is that he would probably hurt in some of these competitive races like Arizona and North Carolina,” Coleman said. There, “if he were the nominee, the Senate math that they have doesn’t really play to his regional strengths as a candidate.”
The race for incumbent North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis’s seat is now rated as a tossup, but Coleman said a Sanders nomination might push the rating to “leans Republican.” If the Vermont senator were the nominee, “We don’t see him as a great fit for North Carolina,” Coleman said.
An analysis by the website FiveThirtyEight projects Biden is likely to win the North Carolina primary over Sanders.
But Mark Kelly, the Democratic front-runner in the race to unseat Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally, might not be as impacted by a Sanders nomination, Coleman said, despite that state’s purple hue. “Because of Kelly’s strength as a candidate we would probably keep that race as a tossup.”
Dems may seek distance
“As the presidential nominating contests continue to unfold, Democratic candidates and the organizations focused on taking back the Senate are squarely focused on making sure they are positioned to win in November no matter who is at the top of the ticket,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the campaign arm of Senate Democrats.
Party officials aren’t expected to attempt to publicly attempt to sway the race for the presidential nomination, although top Democrats — including DSCC Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) — are undoubtedly keeping close tabs on how it could impact competitive races.
“I understand the desire of Senate Dems not to criticize one of their colleagues, but it would be political malpractice for the head of the DSCC to not be concerned about the impact of a Sanders nomination on some of the Senate races,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former longtime Senate aide.
The Democratic National Committee is still facing blowback after hacked emails revealed that top DNC officials criticized Sanders during the 2016 primary despite the committee’s claims that it was neutral.
Some of Sanders’ Senate colleagues have expressed confidence that he can beat Trump in November. “He’s running even with [Trump] in the national polls and… his win in Nevada shows that he won over all the demographics. So I think he’s looking really strong,” Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico told Politico. “It looks like he’s the leader right now and he’s doing very well.”
At least one former DSCC chairman downplayed concerns about Sanders.
“I’m not one who subscribes to the collective freak-out that some people seem to be experiencing right now,” Sen. Chris van Hollen of Maryland told CNN. “My biggest concern is that, you know, people not — we need to come together as soon as we have a viable nominee.”
Congressional contenders’ fate isn’t always determined by their party’s presidential nominee, and candidates often seek to distance themselves from presidential nominees if they think it’ll bolster their campaigns.
In the 2016 election, for example, many Republicans, including former Sen. Dean Heller in Nevada, distanced themselves from then-White House hopeful Donald Trump, particularly after the 2005 Access Hollywood tape surfaced, in which Trump bragged about groping women.
Democrats have done the same thing. In 2010, West Virginia Democratic Senate candidate Joe Manchin famously aired an ad showing him shooting an Obama administration-backed climate bill with a rifle.
If Sanders is the nominee, “I would expect that [some Democrats] would distance themselves,” said Johnston. “Others will embrace him, of course, but it depends on where they are. … Most of the battleground states, I think, would distance themselves.”