Democrats have long taken comfort in the fact that their party’s presidential primary race has been utterly refined compared with the Republican contest’s parade of insults, bluster and profanity.
Those days are over.
After Bernie Sanders accused Hillary Clinton of being not “qualified” to be president — in response to Clinton refusing to say that Sanders is — the race has taken a nasty turn. And party leaders fear it could turn into a distracting sideshow, hindering their efforts to eventually unify the party’s rival factions against the GOP.
In interviews, Democratic senators said on Thursday that the two candidates need to cool it. They mostly blamed Sanders, which isn’t surprising since Clinton is the overwhelming favorite of Capitol Hill Democrats.
“Everybody knows she’s qualified. So he shouldn’t be doing that,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said of Sanders in an interview. “Bernie always boasted about not doing a negative thing in his campaign. And I think that’s kind of negative. I wish he hadn’t done that.”
Added Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland: “I’m surprised that Sen. Sanders has decided to forsake his pledge of going … not only negative, but so irresponsibly wrong.”
Senate Republicans have squirmed for months in the hallways of the Capitol, pledging to support Donald Trump if he’s the nominee and shrugging off queries about why they haven’t backed their colleague Ted Cruz. The divisive Republican primary, and talk that it could ultimately cost them their Senate majority, has dominated the conversation in the chamber for months.
Now Democrats are faced with a similar distraction. On Wednesday night, Sanders said Clinton’s acceptance of millions in special interest donations and her support for the Iraq War and major trade pacts are all disqualifying. Clinton’s spokesman fired back that Sanders has reached a “new low,” and surrogates took to Twitter and TV to chastise Sanders.
“It’s not helpful,” sighed Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who has not endorsed Clinton and leads the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm. Republicans “have their problems on their side. But I don’t think we should assume that helps us one lick. Because we have to be together on the direction that this country is going to move.”
Democrats stressed that the latest sparring between Sanders and Clinton is still a far cry from the profanity, taunts about body part size and physical roughhousing that has defined the GOP race.
But the increasing hostility on the Democratic side threatens to undermine the longtime point of pride that Clinton and Sanders are engaged in a substantive debate about policy differences. Polls have already shown some Sanders supporters would struggle to vote for Clinton; Sanders calling her unqualified to be president is going to make it that much harder for the party to coalesce at the convention in July.
Several Democrats on Thursday called for an immediate cease-fire.
“When you get to this stage in a campaign, people are tired, and people do things they didn’t intend to do. And I think it’s just time to take a pause,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), a Clinton supporter.
“I’m hopeful everybody can just take a deep breath,” added Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), who also backs Clinton.
Sanders’ strong performance of late — he’s won seven of the past eight contests in a diverse group of states — hasn’t won him any new friends in the Senate Democratic caucus. No senators have endorsed Sanders, while 40 of 46 Senate Democratic caucus members are behind Clinton.
Sanders’ stated opposition this week to holding gun manufacturers liable for crimes marked a turning point for gun control advocates such as Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). Murphy said earlier this week that Democrats cannot nominate someone with such a position. He vowed on Thursday to go to the mat for Clinton in his state, which holds its primary April 26.
“I’m going to be very active,” Murphy said. “This increasing division between the two candidates on the issue of guns is going to be incredibly relevant in states like Connecticut and New York, places where the epidemic of gun violence has been real and gruesome.”
Reliable foes of Sanders’ campaign, meanwhile, seized on Sanders’ attack on Clinton’s credentials. Sen. Barbara Boxer of California called his comments “shocking,” while Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri called it “absurd.”
Concerns are growing that voters will have a hard time distinguishing the theatrics of the GOP race from the Democratic contest.
“I’m depressed that with last night, I worry that we might go there, and we can’t go there. We’ve got too much at stake in November,” McCaskill said. “I respect so much all the Bernie supporters. I respect Bernie. But I plead with them to remember that we’ve got to unite for November.”
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