Would Sanders hurt Dems’ bid to claim Senate majority?

By: and - March 3, 2020 5:46 am

Sen. Bernie Sanders at an Oct. 27 rally in Detroit | Andrew Roth

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could spell trouble for Democratic Senate candidates down the ticket, like U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.). 

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. 

Joe Biden at the NAACP candidate forum | Andrew Roth

Former Vice President Joe Biden saw renewed momentum Saturday with a 30-point victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary, but 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 Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the Senate Dems’ campaign arm, in the past. 

“What does it do for the person running against [Republican U.S. Sen.] 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. 


Peters under fire

Peters is a freshman facing a competitive reelection race. His top competition is well-funded GOP businessman John James, who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) in 2018.

Peters hasn’t endorsed in the presidential race, but told the Detroit News last week that he’d support whoever is the nominee.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) routinely sends out statements that Peters “supports socialism.” In a fundraising email, James blasted Peters as a “radical left-wing career politician.”

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has run an ad bashing Peters for supporting Medicare for All, “siding with radical liberals” — even though he hasn’t endorsed the plan.

The group also put up a billboard claiming Peters backs the Green New Deal. Peters hasn’t signed on to the plan, although he supports parts of it, and has taken heat from the left over it, like Sunrise Foundation, an environmental group that’s endorsed Sanders.

Peters spokesman Nirmeen Fahmy said in that the senator “believes climate change poses a serious threat to Michigan, and he has been pushing for the Senate to take action to protect the Great Lakes and our Michigan way of life — and do so in a commonsense manner that benefits workers and their families as well as strengthens our economy and national security.”


Other states

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 also have shunned calls for a single national insurance plan. 

Colorado U.S. 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 also 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 U.S. 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 frontrunner in the race to unseat Arizona Republican U.S. 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 DSCC spokesman Stewart Boss.

Party officials aren’t expected to attempt to publicly attempt to sway the race for the presidential nomination, although top Democrats — including DSCC Chair 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 (DNC) 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,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) told Politico. “It looks like he’s the leader right now and he’s doing very well.”

At least one former DSCC chair downplayed concerns about Sanders. 

“I’m not one who subscribes to the collective freakout that some people seem to be experiencing right now,” U.S. Sen. Chris van Hollen (D-Md.) 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Senate candidate Joe Manchin famously aired an ad showing him shooting a President 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.” 

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.