WASHINGTON, D.C. – Mainstream Democrats were rejoicing over Joe Biden's rousing Super Tuesday performance that bolstered his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, easing worries over the havoc they fear awaits down-ticket moderates should Sen. Bernie Sanders become the party's standard-bearer.
“He can hurt the whole Democratic Party,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., an early backer of the former vice president, said Wednesday about Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont. “And our single most significant cause célèbre is removing Donald Trump. He can hurt that.”
Now, Cleaver said, “I think we’re going to win.”
The remarkably abrupt coalescing of the once-unwieldy Democratic presidential field into essentially a two-person race was underscored Wednesday as Mike Bloomberg, the former New York mayor, ended his costly bid for the nomination and endorsed Biden. Bloomberg had spent over $500 million of his own money — a huge sum in politics but a relative trifle for the billionaire — but proved to be barely a blip during the contest.
“We would have lost Florida," Rep. Donna Shalala said Wednesday of a Sanders candidacy, which remains possible but seems less likely than it did just days ago. She recently joined fellow South Florida Democrats in criticizing Sanders for praising the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro for establishing what Sanders called a “massive literacy program."
South Florida is home to large Cuban and Venezuelan populations, “and they don't like socialism for a good reason," Shalala said. She said she's detected “considerable relief” from voters back home about Biden's rise.
In one gauge of the growing Biden bandwagon, his list of endorsements from House and Senate Democrats grew Wednesday by at least nine and surpassed 60, according to the website Fivethirtyeight. Sanders has nine.
Yet while Biden won 10 of the 14 Super Tuesday states, including delegate-rich Texas and a broad swath of the South, Sanders demonstrated his strength by winning California, the nation's most populous state. And there were no signs that the rift between Democratic moderates and liberals that's fueled their presidential contest has been healed.
Indeed, it remained unclear how long it will take for Democrats to decide which of their two front-runners will grab the nomination. Moderates are concerned that might presage a risky, fractious period until the party's Milwaukee nominating convention in July.
“Bernie Sanders isn't going away," predicted former Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., a Biden supporter. "So they'll have to fight this to the convention. He did that with Hillary, and he's going to do it again."
In 2016, Sanders didn't concede the nomination to Hillary Clinton until shortly before the party's convention, even though she'd already amassed enough delegates to win.
Now, Sanders supporters are showing no signs of surrender for a candidate they still insist will energize throngs of young voters and drive the party to victory in the fall.
“I think that there was a lot of scare put out there about what a Bernie Sanders presidency might do,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who's endorsed the senator. “People really have to think about whoever the nominee is, have to think about how we inspire.”
Noting Sanders won four states on Tuesday, including a decisive victory in California, Jayapal said, “I think that this is going to be a hot race until the end.”
Another illustration of the left's defiance came from Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney who narrowly missed toppling eight-term incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar and grabbing the Democratic nomination for his sprawling South Texas district.
“This is just the beginning," Cisneros said Wednesday. “The first thing we had to defeat was the culture of fear, and our movement was victorious in proving we're within striking distance of bringing fundamental change to South Texas.”
Republicans said they were undeterred by Biden's big day and showed no signs of abandoning what's already one of their 2020 campaign themes — painting all Democrats as beholden to a socialist agenda. As evidence, they've cited some Democrats' support for “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, proposals that many Democrats have opposed.
"If you look at those people, they’re worse than Bernie in terms of being radical left,” Trump told reporters Wednesday about Biden supporters.
Democrats said the socialist label would be much harder for Republicans to pin on Biden.
And centrists said while Biden would be able to deliver an economic populist message as the nominee — such as calls for raising taxes on the rich to finance initiatives — the same message by Sanders would be more polarizing. They worry that Sanders' penchant for aggressive, sweeping calls for change would sow cultural divisions among voters.
Democrats also said the narrowing of the field should accelerate the nomination process, giving the party more time to heal the sometimes-bitter internal differences.
“The big risk is if Bernie becomes very hostile toward Joe and tries to draw some blood,” said former Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who chaired House Democrats' campaign arm early last decade. “He'd be playing right into President Trump's hands” by wounding Biden and hardening internal Democratic differences, Israel said.
“The faster we can get through to a winner, the faster we can heal and unify and focus on what really matters," which is defeating Trump, said John Lapp, a longtime Democratic consultant.
Republicans will need to gain 18 seats on Election Day in their uphill fight to win back control of the House, assuming they retain three seats held by GOP lawmakers who hae left office prematurely. The GOP controls the Senate, 53-47.
In both chambers, the nature of this November's political battleground spotlights why centrists have been petrified of a Sanders presidential bid.
Democrats captured the House majority in 2018 by gaining 42 seats. Of those, 29 are from districts Trump either won in 2016 or lost by a narrow 5 percentage points or less, and most are from districts where moderate suburban voters will be key.
In addition, Democrats' hopes of grabbing the Senate majority will hinge on their toppling GOP incumbents in closely divided swing states, including Arizona, Maine, North Carolina and Colorado, where moderate voters are crucial.
Associated Press writer Padmananda Rama contributed to this report from Washington.
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