Washington (CNN)As Sen. Bernie Sanders emerges from his commanding victory in last weekend’s Nevada caucuses, the Democratic establishment and the party’s sizable moderate wing are increasingly anxious over his steady march to the presidential nomination — yet they lack any sort of cohesive plan to stop him.
No outside group has taken the lead to focus resources against Sanders, and there are still too many candidates left in the race for moderates to coalesce around one standard bearer.
The fear isn’t just over how Sanders and his far-left platform would fare against President Donald Trump in the general election, it’s also about the effect his nomination could have on down-ballot races, particularly for Democrats running in tough elections in swing districts and states.
“It’s not just that he’d lose the presidency, it’s that he’d put our candidates at risk,” said Rep. Scott Peters of California, who supports Mike Bloomberg and is a leader in the 101-member New Democrat Coalition, a caucus of moderate House Democrats.
Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey said “there’s no question” Sanders will “create a real challenge for down ballot candidates” if he’s the Democratic nominee.
“I’m thinking of my home state in New Jersey, we got three new House members. They run in districts that were held by Republicans,” Menendez told CNN. “How do they triangulate? How do they if someone like Senator Sanders is at the top of the ticket?”
The alarm about Sanders’ momentum — and the prospect of him building an unsurpassable delegate lead — was palpable across Democratic campaign headquarters on Monday.
“Thinking of it as uniting in opposition to Bernie is a mistake,” a Democratic adviser close to one campaign said. “They’re all thinking how they can get the delegate race narrowed. The problem is that we won’t have a sense of that until after Super Tuesday.”
Several Democratic presidential campaigns agree with the premise that Sanders’ candidacy is bad for the party, but that’s where the agreement ends. No candidates are willing to make hard decisions about the future of their campaigns until the South Carolina primary on Saturday and Super Tuesday contests three days later, when 14 states and American Samoa weigh in.
For example, former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg said Monday at CNN’s town hall in South Carolina he had not spoken with other campaigns about uniting behind one candidate.
“Of course, I think it would be beneficial if everybody else would drop out and support to my campaign, but I’m not stupid, I mean, that’s not going to happen,” Buttigieg said. “We are competing. And my job is to make sure that we run strongest of all.”
In interviews with more than two dozen Democratic lawmakers, aides and strategists, a picture has emerged of a diffuse and unfocused front against Sanders, built far more on talk than action. Party strategists express a deep concern about a lack of urgency to attack Sanders directly, noting what they see as a false sense of security among donors that there is still enough time to defeat him.
“A lot of folks are sitting on their hands thinking it’s not going to happen,” said one veteran Democratic strategist who opposes Sanders’s nomination. “There are several never-Sanders people who are complacent.”
Not all Democrats are nervous about Sanders. His recent wins have mobilized an enthusiastic crop of young voters that his supporters say is crucial to beat Trump. His performance in Nevada was particularly impressive, showing his strength among Latinos, African-Americans and the working class to assemble what he calls a “multi-generational, multi-racial coalition.”
Many of the concerns that moderate Democrats are raising about Sanders’ electability are strikingly similar to what establishment Republicans were saying about Trump four years ago.
“I don’t think it’s the hair-on-fire moment that some Democrats are saying it is,” an operative who advises several influential Democratic donors, said of Sanders’ front-runner status.
“How does it make sense to say he’s not electable?” said the operative. “Democrats should avoid the circular firing squad they so often walk into by repeating Republican talking points.”
While Sanders’ rise has moderate Democrats nervous, Republicans are practically cheering it. Many GOP voters appear to be gearing up to vote for Sanders in this weekend’s open Democratic primary in South Carolina, in hopes that he will be the best opponent for Trump and help the GOP farther down the ballot.
“If Bernie is the nominee, this is a game changer for Republicans. The House is in play,” said one senior Republican official.
Many moderate Democrats fear that by nominating Sanders the party will reverse the gains it made in 2018 by running on issues like health care that appealed to suburban middle-class voters.
“The striking issue is health care,” said Rep. Peters of California. “Now comes Bernie Sanders, [saying] we’re going to take away health care from 140 million people, and we’re going to substitute it with some untested, unknown plan. He’s talking about Denmark. We don’t live in Denmark.”
Among those most concerned about Sanders is Rep. Joe