WASHINGTON, D.C. – Nervous Democrats who never thought Bernie Sanders had a chance of winning the 2020 presidential primary are now asking the party's big-dollar donors to open their wallets to stop the self-described democratic socialist.
It might be too little, too late.
For months, few paid heed to the Vermont senator as he advocated for a “political revolution.” His sagging poll numbers and a heart attack last fall only heightened the sense that Sanders was unlikely to become the Democratic nominee.
But after wins in New Hampshire and Nevada and a virtual tie for first place in Iowa, many are waking to the reality that Sanders could be on his way to clinching the nomination next week when voters in more than a dozen states head to the polls on Super Tuesday. That’s led to a scramble to pull together the resources to stop a candidate many establishment-minded Democrats believe is too liberal to defeat President Donald Trump.
“I think we all woke up after New Hampshire and realized that we now had a front-runner who has not received any scrutiny over his policy positions, and people got very concerned and reacted," said Jonathan Kott, who leads a group that is hitting Sanders with negative ads.
Leaders of the anti-Sanders efforts are asking donors for money to pay for attack ads. Others are urging those still in the race with the longest of odds to drop out. And Joe Biden supporters are marketing a super PAC supporting the former vice president as the vehicle that could help moderates defeat Sanders.
So far, however, the anti-Sanders forces don't have much to show for their effort. The money they've raised is a pittance compared to the more than $134 million Sanders has taken in since entering the race last year. And one of the bigger hurdles in defeating Sanders is the glut of centrist candidates still in the race who are effectively splitting the moderate vote.
“The idea that there’s a doomsday scenario with Sanders marching to the nomination has only taken hold in the last week, really,” said David Brock, a prominent party activist who founded a group that supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and conducted opposition research on Sanders. “The race isn’t over. But candidates who have no path forward should start to seriously think about dropping out."
Sanders has escaped much of the traditional scrutiny that other leading presidential contenders have faced because few thought he had a chance of winning. He's also sought to sidestep legacy news outlets by building his own in-house media operation, while falling back on fierce counterassaults by his online supporters — often disparagingly referred to as “Bernie Bros” — when he does catch a bad story.
The end result is that he wasn't vetted to the same degree as other candidates, Kott argues, which is what he hopes to achieve with his group, the Big Tent Project.
The Big Tent Project is targeting Sanders with over $1.5 million in negative ads that have run in Nevada and South Carolina. One hits Sanders for supporting a proposal in the 1990s to dispose of nuclear waste in a low-income Texas community. Another calls him a socialist whose promises to drastically ramp up government spending will result in Trump's reelection.
The nonprofit doesn't have to disclose its donors — a stream of financing commonly referred to as “dark money” — and won't have to reveal how much it has raised until after the election. Kott says it's looking to expand its ad campaign to other states and is expecting to take in more checks soon.
Another group, Democratic Majority for Israel, had spent at least $1.4 million on negative ads attacking Sanders as of Feb. 15, according to Federal Election Commission records.
And Biden supporters point to a super PAC, called Unite the Country, that can raise and spend unlimited sums as an option for big-dollar donors who want to stop Sanders.
The group has had middling fundraising success so far. But if they can successfully bill it as the go-to vehicle to stop Sanders, it could prop up Biden's cash-strapped campaign, which does not have the resources to spend heavy on TV advertising.
“Whether you believe that Joe Biden is the best nominee, or Bernie Sanders would lose to Donald Trump — either way, help us go talk to voters,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist for the super PAC.
Yet some question the wisdom of a well-funded campaign against the Vermont senator.
For months, donors and operatives have discussed the possibility of taking on Sanders. They declined to take action, fearing it would antagonize his supporters and further divide the party.
Sanders has proved adept at fundraising off the actions of big Democratic donors, blasting out emails seeking contributions from his army of supporters that portray the discussions as yet another example of party elites conspiring to deny him the nomination.
Others have pinned their hope — and their decision not to open their wallets — on billionaire former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg and his limitless resources. He's already begun running brutal online ads attacking Sanders' past opposition to gun control.
“Why would I (donate) to one of those groups when Michael Bloomberg is going to spend half-a-billion telling everybody everything that they need to know about Bernie Sanders?” said John Morgan, a plaintiffs attorney and prominent Biden donor.
The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA is likely to spend hundreds of millions this year to help defeat Trump in critical — and expensive — battleground states. Guy Cecil, the organization's chairman, said he believes Sanders can win the general election, but does face challenges.
“You see Bernie doing better among younger voters. You see him doing better across a more diverse set of constituencies,” Cecil said. “We know that he’s built a strong committed following.”
But others are still processing the reality that he could be the nominee.
Susie Tompkins Buell, who co-founded the Esprit and North Face clothing lines, voiced concern that Sanders' “angry” base of supporters “have no idea what it takes to get things done” to pass his progressive plans through Congress.
Still, she predicted that any big-dollar effort to stop him would be futile.
“If that is what they think will help, then they should. Personally, I don’t,” said Tompkins Buell, who backs former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Sanders “has not been thoroughly vetted. And maybe ... the ads will help the media wake up.”
AP Washington Bureau Chief Julie Pace contributed to this report from Charleston, S.C.
Catch up on the 2020 election campaign with AP experts on our weekly politics podcast, “Ground Game.”