As Bernie Sanders rises, some Democrats are extremely jittery about possible consequences

Chattanooga, Tennessee: As Senator Bernie Sanders and his supporters reveled in his victory in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Jimmy Tawater’s mood was less celebratory.

“I love Bernie Sanders. Love Bernie, love his ideas. But he can’t win,” said Tawater, 72, of Ringgold, Georgia.

Late on Tuesday, Lloyd Blankfein, the former Goldman Sachs chief executive, wrote on Twitter that the Vermont senator would “ruin our economy” if elected president.

And on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Representative Dean Phillips, a centrist Democrat from Minnesota who flipped a Republican House seat in 2018, said he was worried that Sanders would doom his reelection campaign — and cost Democrats their House majority.

“I’m the first Democrat to win in my district since 1958,” said Phillips, who backs his home state senator, Amy Klobuchar. “I attracted a lot of Independent and moderate Republican support, many of whom probably voted for a Democrat for the first time in a long time. And while I respect Bernie Sanders as a senator, as a candidate, his candidacy is very challenging for people who come from districts like mine.”

Forty-eight states have yet to render judgment on Sanders and the other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president. But with Sanders solidifying his standing at the top of the field, concerns about his electability and whether a possible Sanders nomination might alienate some swing voters rippled through different corners of the country Wednesday — from Wall Street to the halls of Congress to the Bessie Smith Cultural Centre in downtown Chattanooga, where more than 1,000 people turned out in the rain to hear Michael Bloomberg speak.

Jenny Gaines of Chattanooga couldn’t help doubt whether the Democratic Party was in a healthy place. “We’re very divided,” Gaines, 58, said. “And let me say this: If we don’t come together, Donald Trump is going to be back in office.”

Sanders has now won the most votes in the first two nominating contests, energising many liberal voters by championing “Medicare for All” and free public colleges and fighting against income inequality and climate change. He has also proposed sharp tax increases on the wealthiest Americans and on corporations to pay for much of his agenda, and he has been a sharp critic of Wall Street excesses.

Sanders, in turn, unsettles many upper-income and moderate Democrats who worry about the political, economic and personal consequences if a self-described democratic socialist becomes president. Some Wall Streeters compared Sanders to failed candidates like Jeremy Corbyn, the British Labour Party leader who was soundly defeated by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in a recent election.

 As Bernie Sanders rises, some Democrats are extremely jittery about possible consequences

Senator Bernie Sanders at an event in New Hampshire on Monday. By Chang W Lee © 2020 The New York Times

Mike Novogratz, a Goldman Sachs alumnus who runs the merchant bank Galaxy Digital, said Sanders’ oppositional nature had prompted “too many friends” to say they would vote against him in November. “And they hate Trump,” he said.

In Washington, the anxiety is particularly acute among a small but politically important group of freshman House Democrats who helped their party win control of the House in 2018 by flipping Republican seats in districts that Trump won in 2016. Now, they fear that having Sanders at the top of the ticket could endanger them with the independent-minded voters who dislike Trump but would probably not vote for a self-described democratic socialist.

But concern is also building among centrists in the Senate, where Democrats face an uphill battle in their quest to flip the four Republican seats they would need to regain the majority, and must defend moderates like Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire. Shaheen, who has not endorsed any candidate, said she was not concerned by Sanders but sounded frustrated Wednesday by the suggestion that he had won big in her state.

“He did not win big!” she exclaimed. (Sanders took about 26 percent of the vote, just ahead of Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana.)

In the House, members of the group of about three dozen moderates — often called “front-liners” or “majority-makers”— have toiled to carve out political identities distinct from their party’s progressive base, and most are facing competitive reelection challenges from Republicans who bill them as radicals who have empowered a far-left agenda in Congress.

Eight of the front-line Democrats, including Representatives Haley Stevens of Michigan, Max Rose of New York and Lucy McBath of Georgia, have endorsed Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor. Others, including several military veterans — Representatives Conor Lamb and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, and Elaine Luria of Virginia — are coalescing around former vice-president Joe Biden.

Two former chairmen of the party’s House campaign arm — Steve Israel, who has endorsed Biden, and Rahm Emanuel, who is not backing any candidate — said the lawmakers were right to be worried. Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, led Democrats to retake the House in 2006 using a playbook he called “metropolitan majority” — a “Centre-Left” agenda aimed at uniting urban and suburban voters.

“Back in 2006, we created Red to Blue as a political entity,” Emanuel said, referring to a program Democrats made to help candidates flip Republican seats. “We never established or created ‘blue to deep blue.’ That’s not how you create majorities.”

Israel sees two reasons for concern: The race for president will be won or lost in seven swing states and about 20 to 30 swing counties. And the “down-ballot effect” — the tendency for the candidate at the top of the ticket to dominate voters’ assessments of other candidates of his or her party — is very strong in a presidential race.

“Trump will paint every Democrat — whether they’re running for US Senate or county sheriff — as a socialist, as a ‘Bernie Sanders socialist,’ ” he said, “and that’s a tough deal in a lot of these districts.”

Anxiety in the Democratic Party is exactly the sentiment that Bloomberg hopes will propel his unorthodox presidential bid. He is the only candidate who is skipping the four states that vote first in the nominating process — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Instead, he has been campaigning and spending heavily on advertising in states like Tennessee that vote in the 3 March Super Tuesday contests.

And while the candidates trying to appeal to the country’s political middle — Biden, Klobuchar and Buttigieg — jockey for advantage in the early states, Bloomberg is betting that enough voters will come to see him as the consensus alternative to Sanders.

“I’m a believer that if we’re going to unite this country, we should unite the whole country,” Bloomberg said Wednesday. “So I’ve been going to small states as well as big states, states that are on Super Tuesday and states that don’t vote for a long time.”

Over the next several weeks, Bloomberg plans to campaign heavily, starting Wednesday in Tennessee before going to North Carolina and Texas on Thursday, then Virginia on Saturday. All four states vote on Super Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters in Chattanooga, Bloomberg said he saw nothing productive about joining in the criticisms of Sanders. And in a speech to prospective voters, he made an appeal for unity. “The stakes couldn’t be higher,” he told the crowd, only 500 members of which made it into the main room to hear him speak while 500 more waited in an overflow room or stood outside in the rain. “The way to defeat Trump is by appealing to the broadest possible coalition — Americans of all backgrounds and parties — to stand shoulder to shoulder.”

Stevens says voters in her district outside Detroit are looking for just such a candidate. She avoided talking about Sanders. But in explaining her support for Bloomberg, she made it clear that she did not believe Sanders had a profile that would appeal to her constituents.

“What I think is going to resonate in my district is somebody who is a world-class business leader or a government leader,” she said, “somebody who has led a city that is bigger than the populations of certain states.”

The concerns among many Wall Street executives about Sanders are straightforward: His worldview is at odds with the capitalist, free-market system on which the American finance industry thrives. Vin Ryan, founder of the venture-capital firm Schooner Capital and a supporter of Warren, said he viewed Sanders as “a lightning rod” whom Republicans would attack nonstop as a socialist.

“You’ve got enormous numbers of independent voters who don’t like Trump,” he added, “but when you come to the pocketbook issues — particularly that fact that in spite of Trump the economy’s doing well,” that redounds to the president’s benefit, he said.

Jeremy W Peters, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Kate Kelly c.2020 The New York Times Company

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Updated Date: Feb 13, 2020 08:50:37 IST