WASHINGTON - Former astronaut Mark Kelly, the Democratic Party’s hope for flipping a U.S. Senate seat in Arizona, tried to do no harm this month when he was asked about Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I will ultimately support who the nominee is of the Democratic Party,” he said.
That was enough for Kelly's Republican rival, Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who is trailing him in early polls, to go on the attack. The television spot she debuted days later spent nearly as much time talking about plans by the democratic socialist from Vermont to raise taxes and award new benefits to undocumented immigrants as it did about Kelly.
As Sanders, a political independent, builds what could eventually be an insurmountable delegate lead, many Democratic House and Senate candidates are approaching a dramatic shift in their campaigns, as they recalibrate to include praise of capitalism and distance themselves from the national party. Top campaign strategists from both major parties view Sanders' success as a potentially tectonic event, which could narrow the party's already slim hopes of retaking the Senate majority and fuel GOP dreams of reclaiming the House, which it lost amid a Democratic romp in 2018.
"I can tell you that there are a lot of down-ballot jitters based on my conversations with my former colleagues," said former Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., a longtime confidant of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who led congressional election efforts from 2011 to 2015.
"Donald Trump is going to offer the American people this choice: Do you want to continue building the economy, or do you want to lurch toward socialism? And that is a real powerful argument in the Democratic districts that Trump won in 2016."
With an emphatic victory in Saturday's Nevada caucuses, Sanders has won two of the first three contests, and lost the third - the Iowa caucuses - in a squeaker. He also holds leads in polls in many of the Super Tuesday states that vote March 3 - a point by which nearly 4 in 10 delegates nationally will have been chosen.
Internal polling and analytics completed last week by former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg's campaign projected that Sanders may be the only presidential candidate to win delegates in every state and district on March 3, delivering him a lead of 350 to 400 out of 1,357 delegates set to be awarded unless race dynamics change, according to a person familiar with the data who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to speak publicly.
Because of Democratic rules that give no delegates to candidates who score less than 15% of the vote in a state or congressional district, Sanders could build a delegate lead far greater than his advantage in the popular vote.
If Democrats are awakening to a recognition that Sanders could pull away from the rest of the field, there is far less consensus about whether his nomination will help President Donald Trump win reelection. Sanders' power to turn out young and blue-collar voters or suburbanites is not fully tested, the ceiling of Trump's support is poorly defined in a two-way race and the senator from Vermont has not yet been subjected to a negative paid advertising effort.
"Our data shows that all of our potential nominees, including Sanders, have a pathway to victory, but it isn't guaranteed," said Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC that has polled heavily in the key presidential swing states. "This election will be close regardless of who we nominate."
But there is far less flexibility for candidates in smaller districts. That has prompted Republicans to celebrate as they look to reclaim ground they lost in 2018 when largely affluent suburbs rebelled against the GOP in a protest of Trump.
"The Democrats' embrace of socialism is going to cost them their majority - I mean, it's as simple as that," said Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Bernie is about as good a contrast as we could have ever hoped for."
Democrats, particularly those representing swing districts, agree.
"We flipped those seats [in 2018] because of Donald Trump," said one House Democrat who represents a suburban district, speaking on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal discussions. "And if Democrats want to hand most of those back, put Bernie at the top of the ticket. And that's how many of us feel."
The House member added: "Our overarching priority [is] to replace the president, but to do so with someone who is going to be equally divisive does not serve the country's interests, and I think that's at the core of what is making so many so uncomfortable."
Several of Sanders' rivals have begun to warn about a potential down-ballot rout. They have raised particular concern about Sanders' support for a Medicare-for-all plan, which would effectively eliminate private health insurance in the United States.
The leading Democratic candidates running for the four most vulnerable Republican Senate seats - in Arizona, North Carolina, Maine and Colorado - have all come out against Sanders' signature health care plan, as have many House candidates.
"With a divisive nominee like Bernie Sanders, we not only risk losing the race for the White House, we also risk losing the House of Representatives and allowing the courts to be further shaped by Trump's radical vision for our country," said Lis Smith, a top adviser to former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The issue is likely to move to the forefront of the presidential race in the coming days. At a Las Vegas middle school Friday night, swing-district Rep. Steven Horsford, D-Nev., took a jab at Sanders by suggesting that any candidate other than former vice president Joe Biden would put the House majority at risk.
"The greatest thing about Joe Biden, fighting for Nevada families, is he knows it's going to take a team," Horsford told hundreds of Biden supporters. "He is the best candidate positioned to help us keep the Democratic majority in the House and win the U.S. Senate."
The moderate think tank Third Way has urged the presidential candidates to train their fire on Sanders at Tuesday's South Carolina debate, issuing a memo that cites a recent Gallup survey that found 51% of independents would not vote for a self-described socialist for president.
"The suburbs are not looking for a revolution," said Matt Bennett, co-founder of Third Way. "They want change, for sure. Many of them loathe Trump with a burning passion, but they do not want somebody who is proposing to double the size of the federal government. They do not want somebody who is proposing to take away the health care of 180 million people."
A Washington Post-ABC News Poll this week found that Sanders had the worst standing against Trump among college-educated white women, the group most responsible for powering Democrats to their 2018 House majority. Sanders had a statistically insignificant two percentage-point edge over Trump among women voters with college degrees in the poll, compared with Buttigieg, Biden, Bloomberg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who all beat Trump by 10 points or more among that the same group.
Bennett said the past few weeks have seen an explosion of private conversations about how to reckon with - and potentially mitigate - a Sanders nomination. On Capitol Hill, Democrats have been circulating an unflattering private poll paid for by a rival presidential candidate that tests negative messages against Sanders among voters in six presidential swing states.
"Bernie Sanders is a socialist who supports un-American, big government plans that will spend trillions of dollars, lead to higher taxes, and destroy our way of life," reads one line of the polling test. The poll does not test Sanders' rebuttal to such an attack.
Dan Conston, executive director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, the largest GOP super PAC focused on House races, said Sanders' presence lends instant credibility to the GOP's long-standing efforts to tie any Democrat to the far left. Republicans frequently accused Democrats of being socialist in 2018, but the effect was muted in a field dominated by moderate candidates.
"Part of making a message effective is that it has to be believable," Conston said. "You not only have now a series of actual votes and actual positions among members of Congress - not just candidates - you add on top of that, a presidential candidate whom we don't just accuse of being a socialist, he openly says he is. That creates a completely different reality for a voter than before."
Down-ballot candidates will not be able to simply spurn Sanders if he is the nominee, prominent Democrats warn, lest they risk the ire of his base. Former Senate majority leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who presided over efforts to win the Senate back for Democrats in 2006 and expanded that majority to a filibuster-proof margin two years later, said in an interview Thursday that as the nominee, Sanders would have to personally assure Senate candidates such as Arizona's Kelly and former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper that they have a free hand to run their campaigns on their own terms - and distance themselves without fearing blowback.
"He cannot be a distant leader of the party," Reid said, discussing the possibility of a Sanders nomination. "He's going to have to be personally involved with it, so they feel comfortable. If not, there's going to be a problem."
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a co-chairman of the Sanders campaign, said the senator is "not going to have an iron fist" should he win the nomination.
"He's going to build a coalition through persuasion and a grass-roots movement, and he's going to understand give people the ability to depart on issues if they are representing their districts," said Khanna, who represents Silicon Valley and does not share some Sanders positions critical of the tech industry. "You know how I know this? He's given me the ability to depart on issues as a co-chair where I may disagree with him. He's a person who recognizes the value of intellectual dissent."
Sanders' backers - and some other Democratic Party strategists - believe the risk to down-ballot candidates is overstated, especially since so many of the Democratic candidates in competitive races are raising more money than their GOP opponents. In a polarized political atmosphere, they argue, the specifics of a presidential candidate's platform will ultimately matter little - leaving down-ballot candidates more room to forge their own identities.
Ian Russell, a former national political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who is now consulting for multiple Democratic congressional campaigns, said that any challenges for swing-district Democrats will not be unique to Sanders.
"If you are seen as simply a rubber stamp for your party, then you have problems," Russell said. "You need to already be working in your district to show that you're focused on solutions."
Khanna said Sanders' leftist economic platform can have appeal in the suburbs - if packaged appropriately.
"You can talk about these issues in a way that is pro-economic growth. You can talk about these policies in a way that is pro-business," he said. "What I believe is that he is going to get extraordinary turnout for our party at the top of the ticket. He is going to connect with working-class voters who Trump took from us last time, and then every candidate can tailor their message to their districts."
Yet Republican strategists, who have often tried unsuccessfully to separate down-ballot candidates from their own unpopular president, say that task has become increasingly difficult in recent years.
"It feels like we are moving to almost a parliamentary system where voters are voting straight ticket," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who has found in recent polling that Trump is significantly more popular than Sanders in competitive House races. "Sitting back and watching the Democrats and their primary is an extraordinary experience, and I am glad it's not us."
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The Washington Post’s Paul Kane in Las Vegas contributed to this report.