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The Potential Impact Of Bernie Sanders On Down-Ballot Democratic Races


Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders seems to be cruising through the first few primary states, and as he scoops up delegates for the nomination, some Democrats are wondering how a democratic socialist at the top of the ticket might affect down-ballot races. Could a nominee who is so far to the left hurt those running for Congress who are more centrist, especially when we're talking about congressional seats Democrats flipped in 2018 to take back control of the House? To talk about all this, we're joined now by Dave Wasserman from The Cook Political Report.


DAVE WASSERMAN: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So just describe for us the argument that moderate Democrats are making. Why do they say that they're worried about Sanders becoming the nominee in terms of how it could affect other races in November?

WASSERMAN: We're hearing pushback from a variety of fronts on the Democratic side. There are members from South Florida who are uncomfortable with Sanders' comments on the Cuban regime. There are more moderate, pro-business Democrats from upscale suburbs who believe that his argument for a revolution just will not sell at a time when the economy is pretty good for the professional workforce in this country. And there are Democrats who believe that a 78-year-old Vermont democratic socialist will just lose badly to Trump and tank the ticket nationwide. I'm skeptical that he's going to have the dramatic down-ballot implications for Democrats that Republicans say he will.

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CHANG: What kind of districts would you say are most at risk in 2020, and how might a Sanders nomination play in those districts?

WASSERMAN: So right now Republicans need to gain 18 seats to win back the House majority that Democrats won in 2018, and Democrats won a variety of different kinds of districts in the midterms. They won some seats that were more blue-collar and had voted for Obama in the past and voted for Trump in 2016. Those included seats in Michigan, in Iowa, in northern Maine. There are also seats in the suburbs that traditionally were very Republican in the past - had voted for Mitt Romney - that have been trending blue. Orange County, Calif., where Democrats picked up four districts - you have North Jersey, where there's no longer a single Republican in the house. Those are the kinds of places where Sanders might run weakest relative to Hillary Clinton and where Democrats will need to spend money to make the case that they're a different kind of Democrat.

CHANG: That said, tell me why you're skeptical about, if it were a Sanders nomination, that having a palpable affect down-ballot.

WASSERMAN: So Republicans are giddy right now because they believe a Sanders nomination could give them a chance to win back House control, but there are a couple of reasons I would push back on that and be more cautious. The first is that voters are likely to view Bernie Sanders as an independent political entity. In 2016, we noticed that voters distinguished Donald Trump from the Republican Party somewhat, and so Republicans in districts where Trump was unpopular actually performed OK. Republicans held on to control of the House in 2016, when Trump was elected, in part because a lot of voters went to the polls believing that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election. And they wanted a check on President Clinton, or so they thought. If Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee, then there's a possibility that a lot of voters who are displeased with their choices between Sanders and Trump would vote for a Democrat to continue having a check on President Trump.

CHANG: Well, at any rate, it seems that some Republican candidates now are using a possible Sanders nomination in their ads. I mean, you know, Democrats - they want to take back the Senate. In Arizona, Republican Senator Martha McSally has already released ads tying her Democratic opponent, the astronaut Mark Kelly, to Bernie Sanders before Sanders has even won the Democratic nomination. This ad that we're going to play for you right now is called "Bernie Bro."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Now Kelly says he would support Bernie Sanders, 60 trillion in new spending, taxpayer-funded health care for illegal immigrants. Kelly and Sanders - too liberal for Arizona.

CHANG: Do you think if Republicans focus on Sanders in ads throughout the campaigns that that's going to be effective?

WASSERMAN: You're going to see a whole lot of ads just like that if Sanders is the nominee. Democrats enjoy an enormous financial advantage right now in most of these Senate and House races. They have enormous financial leeway to make the case that they're different from Bernie Sanders and that they're pragmatists and that they won't veer the country off a democratic socialist cliff. And so it's going to be difficult for Republicans to simply paint those Democratic freshmen or candidates like Mark Kelly in with Bernie Sanders with a broad brush.

CHANG: Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report, thank you very much for joining us today.

WASSERMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.