Democrats in Congress brace for long primary fight

Spurt of endorsements for Bloomberg, ‘interest’ in Klobuchar and Buttigieg

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has garnered the most congressional endorsements since the Iowa caucuses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has garnered the most congressional endorsements since the Iowa caucuses. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 12, 2020 at 7:06pm

After divided presidential results in Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats in Congress said Wednesday they were bracing for a lengthy primary fight, which some worried could hurt voter enthusiasm in November.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has the most congressional endorsements by far, has not fared well in the early-voting states so far, and the prospect of Sen. Bernie Sanders as the party’s November standard-bearer has alarmed a few vulnerable lawmakers. But the view was not unanimous.

“Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves,” said Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, who has endorsed Biden. “There’s been one caucus and one primary.”

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Others saw a lane opening for Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who is skipping the early states to focus on March 3 “Super Tuesday” primaries. He has picked up the most congressional endorsements since the Iowa caucuses.

One Democratic strategist on Wednesday summed up the Democrats’ views this way: “Everybody’s kind of wary … but it’s not a full-blown panic.”

Long fight ahead 

Even before Sanders won the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, as expected, and came in a close second in the Iowa delegate tally to Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, there were Democrats saying that nominating the senator from Vermont could threaten their House majority. They feared having the self-proclaimed democratic socialist at the top of the ticket could complicate efforts to win over the independents and moderate Republicans they need to win reelection.

“If it becomes a race between socialism and capitalism, yes, absolutely,” the majority is in danger, Minnesota Rep. Dean Phillips said. Phillips has endorsed his home-state senator, Amy Klobuchar, who finished third in New Hampshire.

Republicans were eager to tie vulnerable Democrats to Sanders. On Wednesday, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, highlighted a report from The Hill in which Reps. Elaine Luria of Virginia and Haley Stevens of Michigan said they would support the eventual nominee, Sanders included. 

“Elaine Luria was never a moderate and her decision to pledge her support to a socialist for President should make that as clear as day,” CLF spokesman Calvin Moore said in a statement. 

One Democratic strategist said Wednesday that the more problematic scenario for vulnerable Democrats is a lengthy and bitter primary that results in a convention floor fight to settle the nomination. 

“That’s a nightmare,” the strategist said, noting it could dishearten base voters Democrats need to turn out in November. 

Vulnerable Democratic lawmakers were less concerned about a bitter primary. Phillips, who flipped a GOP-held seat in 2018, noted that Republicans were able to coalesce around President Donald Trump in 2016 after a divisive race. 

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who has endorsed Biden, said he would keep the focus on his own race as the presidential primary played out. Jones and Michigan Sen. Gary Peters are the two Democrats running for reelection in states that backed Trump in 2016.

“I would like it to be resolved sooner rather than later,” said Peters, who has not endorsed in the primary. “But we are going to be running our race.” 

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, a former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said he was not concerned that a divisive fight would affect races further down the ballot.

“There’s other things that are more important than the candidate at the top or how long and divisive the primary is,” he said. “The key is making sure you get out there, you meet with the people, you get your message out, and let people know who you are.” 

On the sidelines

For the most part, Democrats in Congress are waiting to take sides. So far, only 92 have endorsed a presidential candidate still in the race, compared with almost 200 who had weighed in by this time in 2016. 

“We’ve only seen two states, so I’m waiting to see where we end up,” said Rep. Jennifer Wexton, a centrist Democrat who flipped a seat in the Virginia suburbs in 2018.

Wexton said she planned to wait on any presidential endorsement “until the people of my state speak.” Virginia’s primary is on March 3.

“I don’t want to use my outside voice to try to influence anybody,” she said. 

If anyone has benefited from a post-Iowa burst of congressional support, it’s Bloomberg. The billionaire didn’t enter the race until late November and didn’t get a single congressional endorsement until mid-January. 

All but one of the seven endorsements announced since the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 have been for Bloomberg. 

That includes three on Wednesday from Reps. Lucy McBath of Georgia and Gregory W. Meeks of New York, as well as Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett. All are members of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has been heavily courted by presidential candidates seeking to garner clout among African American voters. 

So far, Biden has the most support from CBC members, and his allies insist he will fare well in the next states on the primary calendar, both with more diverse electorates: Nevada on Feb. 22 and South Carolina on Feb. 29. Polls have shown Biden with strong support among black voters in part because he was President Barack Obama’s vice president. 

Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a moderate who was among the first in Congress to endorse Bloomberg, said the divided results in New Hampshire and Iowa had helped make the former mayor’s case. 

“It leaves a lane wide open for Mike Bloomberg, who is a proven executive and a proven leader of one of the country’s largest cities, as well as a philanthropist who has invested money where his values are, and that’s in supporting progressive issues like gun safety and climate change and Planned Parenthood,” she said. 

Early backers of Buttigieg and Klobuchar, meanwhile, said there is increased interest in both campaigns from their colleagues. 

As lawmakers filtered onto the House floor for votes Wednesday afternoon, Virginia Rep. Donald S. Beyer Jr. — the first member of the House to back Buttigieg — stood in the back of the chamber talking to everyone he could about the race, he later recalled. So far, no one was ready to commit, he said, “but everyone is paying a lot more attention.” 

He predicted that lawmakers who have backed Biden and Warren will reassess their position after South Carolina. 

“At the moment, the choice is among Amy, Pete and Bloomberg,” he said. 

But Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill were standing by the former vice president Wednesday, despite his poor performance in Iowa and New Hampshire. They noted that those states are predominantly white, and Biden has support among people of color, who haven’t weighed in on the primary as yet. 

“Joe is the kind of guy who’s taken a punch on occasion, and he’s got back up, whether it’s personally, professionally, whatever,” said Jones, the Alabama Democrat. “And I expect he has got such support in the African American community, with labor, Hispanics, I think he’s going to do well going forward.” 

Phillips expects Klobuchar to win over more lawmakers after her strong showing in New Hampshire, where she came in third behind Sanders and Buttigieg. Klobuchar has just six congressional endorsements so far. 

“There’s a lot of people right now on the fence,” Phillips said.