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Bernie Sanders giving some Florida Democrats heart burn

Those concerns — hammered by former Vice President Joe Biden during Friday’s primary debate — are especially pronounced in Miami, where hundreds of thousands of voters belong to families that have fled leftist Latin American regimes.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., accompanied by his wife Jane Sanders, depart after meeting at McDonough School, in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. (Tyler Sizemore/Hearst Connecticut Media via AP) [TYLER SIZEMORE | AP]

Down-ballot Democrats are beginning to “Feel the Bern” in Florida — and it’s causing a bit of discomfort.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in the Iowa caucuses and his polling lead heading into today’s first-in-the-nation primary are creating anxiety among Democrats who fear that having a self-described “democratic socialist” at the top of the ticket would hurt candidates in state and federal races.

Those concerns — hammered by former Vice President Joe Biden during Friday’s primary debate — are especially pronounced in Miami, where hundreds of thousands of voters belong to families that have fled leftist Latin American regimes.

“If he’s at the top of the ticket in 2020, it’s going to be a bad year for Democrats in Florida,” said state Rep. Javier Fernandez, a Cuban-American attorney campaigning to flip what should be a competitive Miami-area state Senate seat from red to blue.

Sanders argued the opposite on Sunday, saying on CNN that he would bring “incredible gains for down-ballot Democrats” if he becomes the Democratic nominee.

But centrist Democrats worry that his unbending push for Medicare-for-All and other tax-funded entitlements will turn off moderate Democrats and independent voters and feed into a lengthy Republican campaign to label all Democrats as socialists. Sanders also traveled to Nicaragua in 1985 to celebrate the leftist Sandinista revolution, visited the former Soviet Union the day after his wedding in 1988, and flew to Cuba in 1989 in the hopes of meeting late dictator Fidel Castro.

In Miami-Dade County, home to more than 1 million Cuban-Americans and a voter base that is crucial for Democrats’ hopes of beating President Donald Trump and weakening the Republican hold over state government, the attack ads write themselves.

“If Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee, Christmas will have come very early for Miami Republicans,” said David Custin, a political consultant who worked closely with Miami-area House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Republican, on House campaigns during the 2018 midterm elections.

Custin said Democrats will struggle to craft a strategy to handle the problem.

“You can’t plan for it,” he said. “You’re just a deer in the headlights.”

The Sanders campaign pushed back Monday on claims that his nomination would doom Democrats in competitive Florida races, arguing that the Vermont senator is the presidential candidate best able to expand the electorate by drawing young and disenfranchised voters to the polls. His campaign also noted that Sanders has made healthcare, income inequality and climate change — all important to Floridians — integral parts of his campaign.

Even some Democrats who worry about Sanders’ ascension acknowledge that they might be wrong.

“I worry about it,” said Democratic strategist Eric Johnson. “I also worry that I over-worry about it.”

Still, doubts remain in Florida about Sanders’ candidacy and the effect it would have on candidates seeking to win or hold onto seats in Congress and the state Legislature. There is evidence, for instance, that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to brand opponent Andrew Gillum as a socialist in 2018 were effective in Miami, where the Republican roughly matched Trump’s 2016 support but Gillum saw a dramatic drop-off in comparison to Hillary Clinton.

Gillum, who campaigned alongside Sanders during the 2018 Florida Democratic primary for governor, has himself warned repeatedly since his loss that Democrats need to do a better job combating Republicans’ socialism attacks.

On Meet the Press Sunday, moderator Chuck Todd — who grew up in Miami — asked Sanders how he’ll combat that label in Florida, a key swing state that Trump likely has to win in order to be reelected. Sanders responded that Trump is cozying up to autocratic rulers in North Korea and Russia, and will say whatever he wants about whomever he wants, regardless of the truth.

“We’re dealing with a president who’s a pathological liar. What am I going to do? He’s going to say anything he wants about me,” Sanders said dismissively.

For all the hand wringing about Sanders’ candidacy, early Republican warnings about the rise of socialism in America didn’t stop Democrats from winning back the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, including wins in two Miami area congressional seats previously held by Republicans. Democrats also clawed back Republicans’ near super-majority in the Florida House, thanks in part to high turnout with participation from voters who didn’t normally vote in midterm elections.

Democrats also performed well because they made the 2018 elections a referendum on Trump’s presidency. Their worry in 2020 is that Republicans will do the same thing to Democrats if Sanders becomes the Democratic nominee for president, although state Rep. Evan Jenne, one of two Broward County lawmakers leading Florida’s Democratic House Caucus, said Trump will once again be the dominant force in the election.

“I don’t see it being this huge drag” on Democrats, Jenne said in an interview. “This is about Donald Trump and what he stands for, no matter who the nominee is.”