Some advisers are salivating over running against a socialist. Others say they need to be careful what they wish for.
President Donald Trump and his top political advisers were huddling in the Oval Office earlier this month discussing the state of the Democratic primary when they arrived at an increasingly pressing topic: What to do about Bernie Sanders?
Sanders was surging, and some of the Trump advisers were salivating at the thought of a self-described democratic socialist as their general election opponent. As the president listened, they argued for taking steps to elevate him in the primary to boost his prospects.
But others warned that Sanders wouldn’t necessarily be the pushover he might seem. They told the president, who was joined in the meeting by top officials including campaign manager Brad Parscale and pollster Tony Fabrizio, that the Vermont senator’s authenticity and populist appeal could draw some of the blue-collar voters who propelled the president to the White House.
With the Iowa caucuses less than a week away, Trump advisers and supporters are split over whether to wage an effort to bolster Sanders. While proponents think Sanders would be an ideal opponent, others are wary that the liberal firebrand could make for a dynamic challenger — with the ability to make inroads in the Rust Belt states likely to decide the outcome of the election.
“It’s a big mistake for Trump supporters to assume that if Bernie Sanders gets the nomination there’s no chance somehow he can win,” said Matt Schlapp, a prominent Trump backer who heads the American Conservative Union.
Schlapp stressed that he thought Trump would win regardless but the party shouldn’t expect it to be guaranteed if his opponent is Sanders.
Among those pushing for a pro-Sanders offensive is the anti-tax Club for Growth. On Monday, the pro-Trump group launched a TV ad in Iowa that attacks Sanders but does so in ways that could help him with Democrats. The commercial calls Sanders
- “too liberal” and says that he
- supports “liberal health care policies” and
- giving “government health insurance to everyone.” The spot also
- compares Sanders to Democratic heroes Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and says he would
- spend trillions to combat climate change.
The Trump reelection effort, meanwhile, has spent much of the last several weeks focusing its attacks on Sanders — a gambit that two people close to the campaign described as a deliberate effort to draw attention to the Vermont senator. The campaign has used its Twitter account as an anti-Sanders messaging machine and urged prominent surrogates to train their fire on him. Their working assumption is that the presidential attention will only boost his standing among anti-Trump Democratic voters.
Trump himself took to Fox Business last week and declared that “Bernie is surging, there’s no question about it, and Bernie seems to be the one the party wants.”
Yet some of the president’s big-money backers say they aren’t interested in bankrolling an effort aimed at propping up Sanders. They worry his potential strength in a general election is being badly underestimated, much as Democrats wrongly discounted Trump four years ago.
The biggest fear about Sanders is that he could threaten the president’s monopoly on the outsider mantle in a way other Democrats in serious contention for the nomination cannot. Others express unease about Sanders’ energized following and worry that, as an unconventional, candidate he could inject an unpredictable dynamic into the contest. They, too, see potential parallels to Trump in 2016, when he attracted a wave of new voters.
Others say Sanders has struck a nerve with his focus on kitchen table issues both parties have long overlooked. Last week, Trump favorite Tucker Carlson used his Fox News show to warn that Sanders’ push to forgive student debt could win “many thousands” of past Trump voters.
“Bernie Sanders poses the greatest risk because we are still in an anti-establishment era for presidential elections,” said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, who is widely regarded as a potential future Trump White House chief of staff.
Others in Trump’s orbit adamantly disagree. Unlike Joe Biden, they say, Sanders would be easy to brand as outside the mainstream — even providing an opening for Trump to make up ground with suburban voters who’ve deserted him. Senior Republicans say they have conducted focus groups and found that suburbanites are turned off by the senator’s politics.
“I’m of the school that says running against Bernie would be a gift,” said former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, the national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a pro-Trump group that is expected to spend heavily in support of the president.
“In the end,” Coleman added, suburbanites aren’t “going to vote for a socialist.”
The Club isn’t the first conservative group to try to prop up Sanders in a Democratic primary. Ending Spending Action Fund, a conservative group tied to Republican mega-donor Joe Ricketts, aired commercials in the final days leading up to the 2016 Iowa caucuses labeling Sanders “too liberal” and outlining his positions on issues like health care.
Sanders went on to narrowly lose the caucus to Hillary Clinton. ESA Fund has yet to weigh in on the 2020 Democratic race.
Club for Growth President David McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman, said the Sanders-focused commercial was part of a broader effort to engage in the Democratic race. Last year, at a time when some Republicans were concerned about the candidacy of Beto O’Rourke, the conservative group ran TV spots that aimed to weaken the former Texas congressman among Democratic voters.
McIntosh said he was well aware of the prospect that the new ad would energize Sanders’ base and probably help him in Iowa.
“I think the person who suffers from that,” McIntosh added, ”is Biden.”