by Keaton Weiss
James Carville – there’s a name you haven’t heard in a while, and for good reason – is looking pretty upset these days. Over the weekend, Vox published an interview with Carville in which he bemoaned the current state of the Democratic Party, most especially, the continued momentum of Bernie Sanders, who has now achieved bona fide frontrunner status as the favorite to win the nomination.
Carville’s background as an entrenched establishment Democrat and loyal Clinton operative is such that it should come as no surprise that he harbors such hatred for the progressive movement, and Sanders in particular. The interview, predictably, was rife with obfuscation about what Bernie’s platform actually is and what he emphasizes (suggesting that he centers his messaging around violent criminals being able to vote from prison), concern trolling about how he’s “not a Democrat,” and, of course, a litany of excuses for his preferred candidate’s defeat in 2016 (popular vote, Jill Stein, Russians, emails, you get the picture.)
But there is another claim he made that seems to be catching on in establishment centrist Democrat circles about why Bernie Sanders would be an especially precarious general election candidate; that somehow Bernie Sanders, as the Democratic nominee, would doom Democrats’ chances at winning the Senate. Carville, when asked if he thought Sanders could win the presidency, responded with the following:
“Who the hell knows? But here’s what I do know: Sanders might get 280 electoral votes and win the presidency and maybe we keep the House. But there’s no chance in hell we’ll ever win the Senate with Sanders at the top of the party defining it for the public. Eighteen percent of the country elects more than half of our senators. That’s the deal, fair or not.”
Obviously, this is total nonsense. Of course Bernie can lead the party to a Senate win. The map is very difficult this particular cycle, but Sanders has as at least as good a chance as anyone to carry the party to victory in the upper chamber. Let’s break it down:
First, the fact that “Eighteen percent of the country elects more than half our senators” is a giant red herring. It’s an interesting little statistic, I suppose, but it’s utterly meaningless in this context. Because unlike the House of Representatives, which is entirely up for grabs every cycle, the Senate, because its members serve six year terms, is only partially contested every two years. In 2020, there are 35 Senate seats up for election, and of those, only a handful are thought to be in any serious contention.
The first step toward winning the Senate is, of course, defending incumbent Democrats from potentially competitive efforts from Republican challengers. Aside from Doug Jones in Alabama, whose fate is completely dependent on whether or not the Republicans nominate a freakish candidate from the Roy Moore school of Yellowhammer politics, there are four Democratic incumbents thought to be most vulnerable in 2020: Gary Peters of Michigan, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Tina Smith of Minnesota, and Tom Udall’s (retiring) seat in New Mexico. If Carville and his ilk are worried that “democratic socialism” will be too great a liability in those states to carry down-ballot candidates, they should find some comfort in the fact that Bernie Sanders in 2016 won the Michigan, New Hampshire, and Minnesota primary contests (the latter two by very wide margins), and in 2020, his strength with Latino voters has catapulted him to first place in the New Mexico primary polls. So as far as incumbent Democrats are concerned, they have no reason to fear that the Democratic base in their respective states can’t be rallied by Sanders’ brand of politics. In fact, if you look back to 2016 when Hillary Clinton led the ticket, Democrats lost competitive Senate races in states like Wisconsin, where Ron Johnson defeated Russ Feingold, and Pennsylvania, where Pat Toomey defeated Katie McGinty. One could argue those races would have been better off with Bernie leading the ticket as well.
In addition to protecting vulnerable Democratic incumbents, the Democrats also need to gain at least three seats, which means picking off embattled Republican incumbents. The two most beatable Republican Senators are of course Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine. Colorado and Maine, once again, are states Bernie won in landslides during the 2016 primaries, defeating Hillary Clinton 59-40 in the former, and 64-36 in the latter. There’s also a special election in Arizona, which Democrats are hoping they can flip blue this year by riding a wave of Latino support. Once again, Bernie is positioned very well to do just that, as he consistently leads his rivals among Latino voters.
Looking further into where Democrats could pick up seats, Iowa’s Joni Ernst is certainly beatable. And despite the fiasco that was this year’s Iowa Caucus, the one indisputable outcome was that Bernie Sanders won the raw vote count, which is, of course, how the Senate race will be decided in November. Then we can look to Kansas – a tough one, for sure, but they did elect a Democratic governor in 2018, and incumbent Republican Pat Roberts is not seeking re-election. In 2016, the winner of the Democratic primary in Kansas was…you guessed it – Bernie Sanders, by a whopping 68-32 margin over Clinton.
In fairness, lest I be accused of cherrypicking races that would reinforce my narrative that Sanders is the strongest candidate to help Democrats win the Senate, I will concede that incumbent Republican Thom Thillis’ seat in North Carolina might be an easier pickup for Democrats with a more moderate candidate atop the ticket. Even then, though, you’d have to ask yourselves who that moderate could be at this point. Joe Biden is, quite simply, failing to get votes, and is now plummeting in national polls as well, beyond just the mostly white early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. Does Michael Bloomberg scream “North Carolina?” Does Amy Klobuchar? I don’t think so. Pete Buttigieg, whose support among African American voters peaked at 4%, has about as much chance of winning North Carolina as Ilhan Omar has of winning Utah. So even in that case, you have to ask Carville and the centrist Democratic establishment, who else ya got?
But of course, we know the answer to that. They got nobody. James Carville has endorsed Michael Bennet for president. Yes, that’s right. Michael Bennet. Carville actually just said with a straight face on Morning Joe that Michael Bennet would “make a difference” in South Carolina if he could get out of New Hampshire, where he’s currently tied with me at zero percent.
Carville says he’ll vote for Bernie Sanders if he is the nominee. Whether or not we take him at his word (I don’t), and whether or not he’s the kind of establishment loyalist who would rather Trump be re-elected than have Bernie take over his beloved party (he is), it’s clear that his analysis here is just plain wrong. It’s no surprise that the corporate media, who throughout the 2016 primary heralded Hillary Clinton as not just electable, but inevitable, still solicits his opinions on these matters. But there’s no reason for Democrats to fear down ballot defeats with Bernie atop the ticket. If anything, Bernie’s coattails are probably the longest of them all.