Vulnerable Democrats Back Biden and Bloomberg Over Fears Sanders' Liberal Policies Will Cost Them at the Polls

For vulnerable Democrats in Congress, the first contests in the 2020 Democratic primary were disappointing.

The news out of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary boded well for the left-wing and more moderate center of the party, placing two ideologically opposing candidates at the top of the field: Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

But of the roughly 40 or so most at-risk lawmakers—who are known as "Frontline Democrats" and are mostly Washington newcomers who in 2018 flipped districts won by President Donald Trump—many back former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

The problem is that Biden has so far underperformed and sits in fifth place for the fraction of delegates that have been doled out. Bloomberg, meanwhile, is sitting out the early-voting states, including Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, to focus resources on swing states down the road.

"I have had several—maybe five or so Frontline members—over the last week or two voice deep concern about running with Sanders and what it would mean for them in their districts," Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.) told Newsweek. The third-term lawmaker, though not a Frontline Democrat, endorsed Biden the day he launched his campaign.

Vulnerable members fear that someone like Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, could ruin not only the Democrats' chances at ousting Trump but also their ability to maintain control of the House and stop a further slide into the minority in the Senate. Biden and Bloomberg—despite the billionaire's late campaign launch—have each amassed the support of at least half a dozen Frontline Democrats.

vulnerable democrats back bloomberg, biden
Senator Bernie Sanders leaves the stage after speaking at a campaign stop in Ames, Iowa, on January 25. Photo by STEPHEN MATUREN/AFP/Getty

"Many of us have that concern," Rep. Dean Phillips, a moderate who flipped a longtime Republican district in 2018, told Newsweek. Like Boyle, he's not a Frontliner, but he's endorsed a fellow moderate and Minnesotan, Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

"If this becomes a race not between Donald Trump and the Democratic nominee but between capitalism and socialism, that's both unhealthy for the country and certainly unhealthy for Democrats," Phillips added.

Sanders rejected the concerns, saying the voter turnout his campaign generates would help all Democratic candidates.

"When you vote, you grow the voter turnout and you bring working people into the political process and young people into the political process," he told Newsweek. "A large voter turnout is going to help everybody, from the top of the ticket to the bottom."

New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Democrat from the Bronx who was once a bartender, acknowledged and said she understands some her colleagues fears. Also a self-described democratic socialist, Ocasio-Cortez is a passionate supporter of Sanders and a top surrogate for his campaign, stumping for him on the trail.

"I think there's going to be concerns, no matter who the candidate is," Ocasio-Cortez told Newsweek. "When you have a party that is such a big tent and you get any candidate from one corner of that tent, folks in the other corner are going to be feeling some type of way."

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Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders during his February 10 campaign event at the Whittemore Center Arena in Durham, New Hampshire. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty

She also argued that the election strategies for each chamber are different, with Senate campaigns appealing to a statewide audience while House districts tend to be more homogenous. She also said that a nominee more moderate than Sanders would raise "alarm bells" over whether progressives in the party could unify around that person.

"I understand those concerns. But I mean, ultimately it's not just about one candidate," Ocasio-Cortez added. "It's going to be about overall turnout and can we really get this thing done."

Another endorser of Sanders is Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who pushed back on the notion the senator has spawned fear within the caucus.

"No one needs to be a clone of him," Khanna told Newsweek. "If they're in districts where they disagree, they can take positions that depart from him."

Several of the Frontline members sidestepped questions about what a Sanders nomination could mean for them and the party. Instead, they pivoted to why they support their respective candidate.

"Sanders is an independent. He is not a Democrat," said Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), who backs Bloomberg. She flipped a longtime Republican district in 2016.

"[Bloomberg] represents the values that are broadly held by the Democratic Caucus—an interest in stopping gun violence, making sure that women have access to their health care options, fighting climate change," she said.

Representative Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), who flipped a Trump district in 2018, also backs Bloomberg.

"We look at gun violence, climate change, lowering the cost of health care—these are all things that this guy can do," she said. "He's run complicated systems. He's got a proven background."

Senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.) was placed in the Senate thanks to a special election to fill the vacant seat left by Jeff Sessions after he was tapped as Trump's attorney general. He also faces a tough re-election, and his vote to convict Trump of the impeachment articles almost certainly do not help his chances at the ballot box with many of his constituents.

"I don't think it's really appropriate to play a lot of 'what if' games," Jones responded when asked whether he could get behind someone like Sanders as a nominee. Jones has endorsed Biden.

"We've only gone through two elections. There is still a long way to go here," he continued. "I'm still optimistic about my candidate, Joe Biden. If you look at the moderate folks that came out of New Hampshire, I think that's the place we're headed."

Phillips, the Minnesota Democrat who's backed Klobuchar, said he'll get behind anyone he believes can beat Trump while maintaining Democratic control of the House. Though Phillips respects Sanders, he's got concerns when it comes to the candidate's left-leaning policies and how to implement them, which some consider to be too extreme and unrealistic to accomplish in such a polarized Washington.

"I think he's doing the race a service, and I respect that. But I also recognize the consequences of stretching a rubber band too much. It snaps," Phillips said. "Sometimes you have to inch it along, and I think the country right now is looking for the latter."

Klobuchar and others, he elaborated, are most likely to make their initiatives become fruition.

"She aspires to the same objectives that many of the most liberal candidates do, but the tactics to achieve those objectives is where I think Amy Klobuchar, I think Michael Bloomberg and now, increasingly, to a lesser extent, I think Joe Biden can achieve," Phillips added.

This story was updated to include comment from Sen. Bernie Sanders.