They’d like to see Bernie Sanders out of the race so that Hillary Clinton can get down to the business of preparing for what could be a brutal fall election against Donald Trump.
But since the Vermont senator has made it clear he has no intention of leaving the Democratic primary race until the July convention, many of Hillary Clinton’s most prominent fundraisers and supporters are learning to live with it, convincing themselves that Sanders is a rival with benefits.
As long as the veneer of a competitive Democratic primary remains in place, goes the burgeoning line of thinking, the unpredictable Republican front-runner — mired in his own raging nomination war — is less likely to focus his fire directly on Clinton. Add to that the continued television exposure that the two Democrats will get — not to mention the continued political engagement of young progressive Sanders backers — and the prospect of a drawn out Democratic primary with Sanders far behind yet still soldiering on doesn’t seem quite so grim.
“I have zero heartburn over the Sanders candidacy,” said longtime Clinton strategist Paul Begala, who now advises the main pro-Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA Action. Sanders’ continued presence in the race, he said, “gets you more free press, which against the tsunami of Trump press is really difficult. We learned this from the Hillary-Barack [Obama 2008] contest. We thought it was going to be a death march, but it turned into a victory march.”
Plus, said Begala, “the biggest problem we have is the enthusiasm gap, and Bernie Sanders helps with that.”
That sunny perspective is far from universally held. Many Democrats close to the Clinton campaign and its fundraising apparatus are eager to take on Trump with a more public, sustained effort wish, and they don’t want to see Clinton burn precious cash slogging through more primaries. Plus, there are many Clinton allies who want to make sure there’s ample time to bring Sanders supporters on board — something they think would be achievable, given the intense focus on Republican opposition to confirming Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.
But for the moment, even as Sanders seeks to reel off a string of wins and vault himself back into contention over the coming weeks, there’s no sense of urgency to pressure Sanders to exit the contest, a tactic that many fear would backfire anyway.
Such patience is contingent, however, on Sanders not ratcheting up his criticism of Clinton — which Clinton allies fear could leave his supporters disinclined to even consider voting for her. That would be the worst-case scenario before a tough general election, said multiple Democrats, pointing to comments made by Sanders’ chief strategist Tad Devine himself in 2008, when he argued that year’s primary contest should avoid getting too heated.
“When they attack each other, and they do so in battleground states, these arguments are heard by voters and they may be remembered by them later on,” Devine told ABC in March of that year. “There’s also the fact that when you air the arguments early on, they become a little stale.”
While Sanders has recently run ads critical of Clinton without mentioning her by name — and while his campaign manager Jeff Weaver sent out a fundraising email lambasting Clinton’s big-money events as recently as Thursday afternoon — the candidate himself has dialed down his critique since losing five states on Tuesday.
At an election night rally in Phoenix, for example, he axed the customary section about Clinton from his stump speech, and only mentioned his rival twice.
That softening is an encouraging sign to Clinton fundraisers, who are hearing more and more about combating Trump in conference calls and meetings with top campaign officials, multiple donors said. And since the real estate developer hit Clinton in the last week — with an Instagram video purporting to show Russian President Vladimir Putin laughing at her, and with a tweet accusing her of long-standing corruption — their level of concern about addressing the general election is rising.
“If [Sanders] wants to keep running, he’s got a right to do that, and his supporters have a right to do that,” said Bruce Thompson, a North Carolina attorney and fundraiser for Clinton. “She’s still going to compete, and it’s a good opportunity to get her ideas out there. With all that being said, there are those of us looking to November once our state primaries end, trying to figure out how she can win here and help with down ballot races.”
That message is related to the one relayed by President Barack Obama to donors behind closed doors in Austin, Texas, last week when he suggested that Sanders’ time was running out, as first reported Thursday by The New York Times. But, high-level Clinton allies noted, the president stopped short of encouraging Sanders to exit the race, and Clinton surrogates have also been careful not to make that ask.
“On both sides, there ought to be an awareness that there’s a fall election coming and you don’t want to do anything in the course of this that makes it harder for the party to come together,” said Bob Shrum, a veteran Democratic strategist who was a senior adviser for both John Kerry and Al Gore in their presidential bids. “You have to have, at this point, some attentiveness — this is particularly important for the Clinton people — that they want to enlist Bernie Sanders for the fall.”
Many Clinton allies and staffers believe Sanders has actually made her a stronger general election candidate, forcing her to work on honing her answers on topics such as her proximity to Wall Street.
And while they insist he’s still in the race to win it, even Sanders’ top aides have started acknowledging the potential usefulness of his continued candidacy — perhaps in the role of a human shield.
“I anticipate the tone will remain the same. There are important differences between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders,” said Weaver in a call with reporters on Wednesday. “[But] were this contest to end — either by the secretary getting out, or us getting out, [but] certainly if the secretary was still in the race — I think she could expect months and months and months of immediate, and vicious, and very personal attacks from the Trump people. So I don’t know if that’s necessarily healthy for her.”
Powered by WPeMatico