LAS VEGAS (AP) — A growing number of Democratic politicians, union officials, state leaders and party strategists agree that Bernie Sanders is a risky nominee to put up against President Trump. There’s less agreement about whether — and how — to stop him.
Critics of the Vermont senator, who has long identified himself as a democratic socialist, are further than they’ve ever been from unifying behind a moderate alternative. None of the viable centrists in the race is eager to leave the campaign to clear a path for a candidate to become a clear counter to Sanders. And Sanders is looking to Saturday’s Nevada caucuses to post another win that would further his status as an early frontrunner.
With fear and frustration rising in the party’s establishment, a high-stakes math problem is emerging. It could be impossible to blunt Sanders so long as a trio of moderate candidates — former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar — stay in the race. And with former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into the 14 states that vote on Super Tuesday, March 3, the effort to stop Sanders will become even more challenging when the campaign goes national in March.
“You see this tremendous angst in the party — ‘What are we going to do?'” said Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor who was chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “We need to unify as fast as we can.”
The dynamic is complicated because each of the major moderate candidates has glaring vulnerabilities.
Biden began the campaign as a frontrunner, but the aura around his operation took a hit after a fourth-place finish in Iowa and a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire. Buttigieg has proved to be the most effective centrist in raising money from high-dollar donors, which puts him in a strong position to compete in an expensive national contest. But the 38-year-old faces lingering questions about his experience and his ability to win support from black and Latino voters, a challenge that could come into greater focus if Buttigieg loses badly in Nevada and South Carolina.
Kloubchar is emboldened after a third-place finish in New Hampshire, but she too has little support among minority voters and has run a bare-bones campaign.
“When you have three or four candidates in that same lane, math becomes a problem,” said Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Firefighters and a Biden loyalist, who acknowledges being “disappointed” by Biden’s bad performances and Sanders’ rise.
Though the opening contests of the primary have only begun, time may run out quickly for a moderate alternative to emerge.
By the end of Super Tuesday, more than one-third of Democratic delegates will have been awarded. Should Sanders build a significant delegate lead — and his strength in California alone makes that possible — it would be difficult for any other candidate to catch him in the slew of state-by-state elections that follow, based on the way delegates are apportioned.
“We have a lot of good candidates, but in general we’re incredibly frustrated that the field hasn’t winnowed,” said Robert Wolf, a major fundraiser for Barack Obama, who said he has donated money this cycle to more than a dozen Democrats. Sanders is not one of them.
The situation is similar to the Republican primary in 2016, when several anti-Trump alternatives divided their party’s moderate vote and allowed Trump to become the nominee despite failing to win a majority of the vote in early primary contests.
There is no significant movement in the works to stop Sanders. And so long as there are a half dozen viable candidates in the race, it may not matter if there were.
Sanders’ team expects his Democratic critics and their allies to intensify their attacks in coming weeks, though time may be on their side with Super Tuesday just two weeks away. If Sanders comes out of Super Tuesday with a 100-delegate lead, which is possible based on his popularity in California alone, they believe it would be virtually impossible for anyone to catch up before the party’s national convention in July.
Sanders showed new signs of confidence as he campaigned over the weekend in Nevada before the state’s caucuses next Saturday. Rallying supporters in Carson City on Sunday, he said he could win Nevada, then California and the Democratic nomination and highlighted attempts from his rivals in both parties to stop him.
“I’ve been attacked by the media establishment, I’ve been attacked by the corporate establishment, I’ve been attacked by the Republican establishment, I’ve been attacked by the Democratic establishment, and they’re nervous,” Sanders said.
Sanders told The Associated Press last week that he was ramping up his outreach to other lawmakers and party officials who have been skeptical of his White House bid, though he offered no details. The senator has also agreed to host at least two fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee, which he had previously resisted.
Asked about the response he was getting to the establishment outreach, Sanders said: “I think we’re going to do just fine.”
Yet as Sanders’ strength grows in the early voting states, there is no evidence that his standing is improving among the party’s entrenched political class. Several elected officials in recent days have raised concerns about his ability to beat Trump and his impact on other Democrats running this fall.
The competition for endorsements helps tell the story of the moderate muddle.
Since Biden’s underwhelming finish in Iowa, Sanders hasn’t received a single congressional endorsement. Buttigieg and Klobuchar, who have shown some strength on the campaign trail, have earned just one congressional endorsement each.
Over that same time, at least seven congressional endorsements have gone to Bloomberg, a 78-year-old former Republican who is threatening to become a top-tier candidate even after skipping all four February primary contests.
Steve Shurtleff, a Biden backer and speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, says Buttigieg and Klobuchar are the new leaders in the party’s moderate wing, while Bloomberg is making a case.
As for Sanders, Shurtleff said that most New Hampshire voters supported somebody else. Sanders won last week’s primary with just 26% of the vote, a low bar made possible because his moderate alternatives split the rest of the electorate.
“It’s very crowded in that lane,” Shurtleff said. “It’s really kind of a conundrum.”
But don’t ask any of Sanders’ rivals to step aside.
An energized Klobuchar said in an interview that her third-place finish in New Hampshire left her “as scrappy as I was when I started.”
She shrugged off concerns about moderates dividing the vote. And she highlighted her strengths in Nevada, where she and Biden earned the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper and may benefit from the success of female candidates. Both of the state’s U.S. senators are women and the Legislature is majority female.
“I don’t think it’s as simple as two lanes,” she said in an interview. “Everyone brings something else to this.”