Bern notice: House Democratic leaders calm rank and file as Clyburn boosts Biden

Top caucus leaders likely to stay neutral in nominating contest

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., is likely to be the top-ranking Democrat to endorse in the nominating contest.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., is likely to be the top-ranking Democrat to endorse in the nominating contest. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 26, 2020 at 4:16pm

House Democratic leaders on Wednesday publicly tamped down concerns some of their members have been privately raising about the down-ballot effect of a potential Bernie Sanders presidential nomination, even as one of their ranks was in South Carolina endorsing a Sanders competitor. 

As the Democratic Caucus gathered for its weekly caucus meeting in the Capitol on Wednesday morning, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn was some 500 miles away in North Charleston, S.C., holding a news conference with Joe Biden to announce his endorsement of the former vice president.

[Clyburn, No. 3 House Democrat, endorses Biden for president]

South Carolina voters head to the polls Saturday, and Clyburn said he decided to publicly back Biden, whom he’d long ago decided to vote for, after hearing from constituents who wanted to know who in the narrowing Democratic field he was backing.

The No. 3 House Democrat is expected to be the only longtime caucus leader to make an endorsement in the 2020 presidential primary. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer have both said they will not express support for any particular candidate but will back the eventual nominee.

Pelosi emphasized the importance of that to her caucus Wednesday.

“I would hope that everyone would say, no matter who the nominee is for president, we wholeheartedly embrace that person,” the California Democrat said, according to an aide in the room for the closed-door meeting.

Sanders concerns

The prospect of Sanders — the Vermont independent senator who leads the delegate count after contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — winning the Democratic nomination has raised concerns among moderate House Democrats about the down-ballot impact on their races.

Most have expressed those concerns privately, but some, like freshmen Reps. Anthony Brindisi of New York and Joe Cunningham of South Carolina, have done so publicly. Brindisi and Cunningham flipped Republican seats in districts that backed Trump in 2016.

Most “Frontline” Democrats, those the party campaign arm considers vulnerable for reelection in 2020, haven’t endorsed, but those who have are mostly backing Biden or former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Bloomberg’s campaign commissioned a poll to test the impact a Sanders nomination would have in battleground districts. The survey of 600 registered voters conducted Feb. 22-23 showed Sanders trailing by 1 percentage point in a hypothetical general election matchup against President Donald Trump. But when respondents were re-asked the question alongside potential GOP attack lines about Sanders’ self-described democratic socialist positions, Trump’s margin increased to a 6-percentage-point lead.

[Mitch McConnell tempers GOP enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders]

The poll, which has a 4-point error margin, also found that 39 percent of respondents in the battleground districts would be less likely to vote for a Democratic congressional candidate if Sanders were the nominee and his democratic socialist ideas were in the party platform, compared with 21 percent who said they’d be more likely to vote for a Democrat and 34 percent who said it would have no impact.

Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden likely has little to do with vulnerable members’ concerns about Sanders, however. He has a longtime friendship with Biden, and several colleagues he’s close with in the Congressional Black Caucus have also endorsed Biden. Former CBC Chairman Cedric L. Richmond, who has nightly dinners with Clyburn when the House is in session, is a national co-chairman of Biden’s campaign.

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Few leaders have endorsed

Among all House Democrats, Biden has the clear advantage in congressional endorsements, accumulating 50 after Clyburn’s announcement. Bloomberg has the second most with 16, followed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren with 13, Sanders with nine, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg with seven and Sen. Amy Klobuchar with six.

Clyburn is only the fourth House Democratic leader to endorse in the presidential contest. The second-highest ranking Democrat to endorse was Caucus Vice Chairwoman Katherine Clark, the No. 6 in leadership. The Massachusetts Democrat is backing Warren, her home-state senator.

Warren also has support from Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, who is the leadership representative for members who’ve served five or fewer terms. And Biden has another leadership endorsement from Pennsylvania Rep. Matt Cartwright, co-chairman of the caucus’s messaging arm.

One leader aside from Pelosi and Hoyer who has signaled his intention to stay out of the nominating contest is Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries. The No. 5 in leadership, Jeffries is considered among a short list of members likely to replace Pelosi as speaker whenever she retires.

“I haven’t taken a position on the presidential race,” the New York Democrat said. “I’m aggressively neutral, because anybody who emerges would be better than the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who is a total disgrace in my humble opinion.”

Jeffries said he will support whomever becomes the nominee, whether it’s Sanders, Biden or anyone else who is running.

Clark did not note her endorsement of Warren as she spoke alongside Jeffries at a news conference where several reporters’ questions were about Sanders. But she expressed confidence in members’ ability to run campaigns in their districts independent of the presidential race.

“What our members, especially those in tough districts, have done since they were sworn into office is go home, talk to people, hold town halls, be available,” she said. “That is why they are going to be successful in the fall. It’s that connection and the priorities of the For the People agenda.”

Thursday briefing

Pelosi announced during the Wednesday caucus meeting that party officials will brief members Thursday about the Democratic National Convention, including the superdelegate process and opportunities to get involved ahead of the Milwaukee gathering. 

Pelosi said the briefing will be an “objective listing of the rules” but is useful information for them.

“This is very important because we have to know our power as the House of Representatives, our responsibility,” she said, according to the aide. “This is tough. This is tough. We have to win. We think our victory is something that can help win state houses, governorships and the rest.”

Pelosi put the onus on House Democrats to “lead the way” as they did in 2018, at least “until everybody else has their houses in order” — a not-so-subtle reference to the uncertainty in the presidential nominating contest.

“We have never lost steam. We only picked up momentum, and we have to win this House,” Pelosi said, citing mobilization on the ground in terms of “message, mainstream, money.”

After the meeting, Pelosi told reporters she was not concerned about Sanders and she was confident Democrats would win the House regardless of who the nominee is.

Hoyer was similarly bullish when asked about Sanders’ down-ballot impact during his weekly press briefing.

“I think we’re going to hold the House,” the Maryland Democrat said.

Policy differences

Hoyer said he and Pelosi will probably not speak about the individual presidential candidates’ positions but they have a role to play in setting a legislative agenda for the party that any nominee can support in contrast to Trump and Republicans’ policies.

“We continue to let the American people know we’re focused on issues that affect their health care, jobs, infrastructure, global warming, education,” he said. “And we’re going to do that. We do that by passing very substantive legislation.”

Notably, Pelosi and Hoyer have steered clear from backing some of Sanders’ policy positions, like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, despite support for those ideas growing within their caucus.

Like Clyburn, Pelosi and Hoyer have a history with Biden. The three leaders worked closely with the former vice president on many of the accomplishments he touts on the campaign trail, as they led House Democrats during the Obama-Biden administration, the first two years of which they had the majority.