WASHINGTON (AP) — Bernie Sanders’ commanding Nevada caucus victory made him a top target for his Democratic rivals and a growing source of anxiety for establishment Democrats worried that the nomination of an avowed democratic socialist could cost the party in November.
Sanders' win solidified his front-runner status in the crowded field as the race turned to Saturday's presidential primary in South Carolina, where his moderate opponents scrambled to try to blunt the Vermont senator's momentum. But with so-called Super Tuesday just three days later, when 14 states vote and one-third of the delegates are awarded, time was running short for Sanders' opponents to consolidate support.
That prospect on Sunday amplified concerns among Democrats who believe Sanders' call for a political “revolution” would drive moderate and independent voters away from the party, both in the matchup against President Donald Trump and in House and Senate races.
“I think it would be a real burden for us in these states or congressional districts that we have to do well in," South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, the House minority whip and the top-ranking black Democrat in Congress, said Sunday on ABC's “This Week."
Clyburn, who said he'll endorse a candidate on Wednesday, specifically pointed to the districts Democrats flipped to take control of the House in 2018. “In those districts, it's going to be tough to hold on to these jobs if you have to make the case for accepting a self-proclaimed democratic socialist," he said.
Sanders' campaign argued he will bring in new and infrequent voters — largely progressives, young people and voters of color — who have been alienated from the process and seek a drastic overhaul of Washington, not merely trying to oust Trump.
He successfully relied on that coalition Saturday to dominate his Democratic rivals in Nevada, pulling far ahead of the second-place finisher, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who came in third. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren landed in fourth, while Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer were in a close race for fifth as the Nevada Democratic Party continued to tabulate results.
Sanders celebrated the win in Texas, a top Super Tuesday prize and a state that Democrats see trending their way thanks to a growing Hispanic population and opposition to Trump in the suburbs.
Sounding like a candidate who had already secured the nomination, Sanders told thousands of cheering supporters who filled a basketball arena on the campus of the University of Houston that he would win in the state both next month and next fall.
“If working people and young people of this city, black and white and Latino, gay or straight, if our people stand together, come out to vote, we’re going to win here in Texas,” he said.
Sanders' new status was clear as most of his rivals sharpened their focus on him.
In a speech Saturday to supporters in Las Vegas, Buttigieg blasted Sanders as calling for an “inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans."
Klobuchar tapped into worries about Sanders' impact on congressional races at a stop in North Dakota. The party's nominee needs to win rural voters and “have positions that bring people with us,” she said.
Biden, meanwhile, swiped indirectly at Sanders, noting Sanders is an independent and not a member of the party he's seeking to represent in November, and at billionaire candidate Mike Bloomberg.
“I ain’t a socialist. I’m not a plutocrat. I’m a Democrat," Biden told supporters Saturday.
“If we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base — like Sen. Sanders — it will be a fatal error,” Bloomberg spokesman Kevin Sheekey said.
But some Democrats were worried that the new focus on Sanders may be too little, too late. For months, as several Democrats jockeyed to become the chief alternative to Sanders, they largely attacked each other on debate stages and in ads while taking relatively few punches at the Vermont senator. Party leaders have been reluctant to appear to be putting their thumb on the scale, so as not to rile Sanders voters and further divide the party. It was not clear Sunday that there was any new strategy to try to knock Sanders off course or consolidate support behind a single moderate.
“We gotta hope that some of these candidates develop political skills quickly,” said James Carville, a Democratic strategist and one of the noisiest anti-Sanders voices in the party. "The risk in losing the election is deep and profound. We just gotta pray.”
Dan Pfeiffer, a former adviser to President Barack Obama, said if no candidates drop out before Super Tuesday and the moderates continue to split the delegate, Sanders likely has a lock on the nomination.
“It’s just simple math,” Pfeiffer said, noting that he's not advocating that any candidates drop out to stop Sanders, and that he doesn’t ascribe to the belief among some Democrats that Sanders can’t win.
“Each of these campaigns have a legitimate rationale for staying in the race,” he said of Sanders’ opponents.
On Sunday, those Sanders opponents pledged to stay in the race through South Carolina, and several signaled they would stay in through Super Tuesday.
Klobuchar rallied supporters near the North Dakota-Minnesota border, speaking to voters in her home state, which votes on March 3, while North Dakota on March 10. Warren was slated to campaign in Colorado, also a Super Tuesday state. Biden was in South Carolina, the state his campaign hoped would revive his candidacy after poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire and only modest improvement in Nevada.
Biden resisted predicting victory in South Carolina and said he isn't banking on Clyburn's endorsement, a blessing that could help Biden shore up support with the black voters his campaign has long argued will be the springboard to a nomination. Clyburn said Sunday he had heard from Democrats disappointed in Biden’s debate performances.
Democrats will debate on Tuesday in Charleston, South Carolina. California billionaire Tom Steyer said Sunday he has qualified for that debate, after missing the mark for the stage in Nevada.
The stakes were high for Nevada Democrats to avoid a repeat of the chaos in the still-unresolved Iowa caucuses, and it appeared they did not entirely avoid complaints. Buttigieg’s campaign raised questions about the results, citing more than 200 reports of problems allocating votes. It wants the state party to disclose more details of the votes and address concerns before releasing final results.
But the party said it was not planning to offer a more detailed voting breakdown and appeared to be inviting the campaign to follow recount rules if it wanted to challenge the results.