WASHINGTON – Republican operatives are having a strange bromance with Bernie Sanders.
During Sunday night’s Democratic debate, the Republican National Committee made the unusual move of sending no fewer than four real-time emails to reporters defending the self- described democratic socialist from attacks by Hillary Clinton. Based on their content, one could be forgiven for thinking the RNC communiques came from the Sanders campaign.
One RNC email, which was titled “Clinton’s Misleading Health Care Attack,” defended the Vermont senator from what it described “the Clinton campaign’s inaccurate remarks on Sanders’ single-payer plan,” and quoted news articles that featured rebuttals of her arguments. A second message countered Clinton’s attacks on Sanders over gun control by pointing out her gun-friendly statements in the past. Two other emails sought to bolster Sanders’ case that Clinton is too close to Wall Street and the drug industry.
After the debate, the Republican political action committee America Rising promoted the narrative that Sanders won the debate. “Clinton needed a win last night. Instead, everyone is talking about how well Bernie Sanders, her chief rival, did,” the group’s communications director Jeff Bechdel wrote to reporters.
Meanwhile, American Crossroads, a group co-founded by Karl Rove, is airing an ad in Iowa bolstering a core tenet of Sanders’ case against Clinton: that she has received large sums of campaign contributions from Wall Street, and therefore can’t be trusted to crack down on big banks. “Hillary rewarded Wall Street with a $700 billion bailout, then Wall Street made her a multi-millionaire,” a narrator in the ad says. “Does Iowa really want Wall Street in the White House?”
These Republican operatives are attempting to pick their Democratic opponent in the general election, and they’re making clear they’d rather face Sanders than Clinton. It is an age-old political manipulation tactic, typically used with some subtlety. It comes as recent polls show Sanders being competitive in Iowa and leading in New Hampshire, where back-to-back Sanders victories could endanger Clinton’s national lead.
“In Iowa, American Crossroads is helping Bernie Sanders by depicting Hillary Clinton as a Wall Street insider,” Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, wrote on his blog.
“My guess is that Republican operatives know that Clinton is likely to win the nomination even if Sanders upsets her in Iowa and New Hampshire. But an extended challenge will force her to use up money too early, and nudge her farther to the left,” Pitney wrote in an email to Bloomberg. Whether it will work remains to be seen, he said. “But at this stage, campaigns will grab for every advantage they can get.”
Priorities USA, a group backing Clinton, said the ad was designed by Republicans to “interfere with our primary process” and “attempt to clear their path to the White House.”
At Sunday night’s debate, Clinton made a note of the ad, too. “I’m the one they don’t want to be up against,” she said, referring to the financial sector.
The efforts indicate that Republicans aren’t buying recent polls that show Sanders outperforming Clinton in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups against GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump. One reason may be that, unlike Sanders, Clinton has been through the wringer of Republican attacks. While a spokesman for Sanders didn’t immediately return a request for comment on the Republican attempts to boost him, the senator went out of his way in Sunday’s debate to invoke recent surveys to make the case that he’s electable.
“In terms of polling, guess what? We are running ahead of Secretary Clinton in terms of taking on my good friend, Donald Trump,” Sanders said. A NBC/Wall Street Journal poll finds him leading Trump nationally by 15 points, while Clinton leads Trump by 10 points.
Republican candidate John Kasich indicated in a debate last week that he’d love to face Sanders. “We’re going to win every state,” he said, “if Bernie Sanders is the nominee.”