Washington • You can already see the ads: grainy, black-and-white images of Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ben McAdams stamped with the word “socialist” in red ink.
It may not matter that McAdams is one of the more moderate Democrats in Congress and isn’t backing Sanders. If the Vermont independent and self-described democratic socialist becomes the party’s nominee, McAdams is likely to be linked nonetheless.
The Utah Democrat this fall will be fighting to keep his seat, which he won by less than 700 votes two years ago in a district that leans Republican. And tying McAdams to Sanders — or even former Vice President Joe Biden, who is now leading the Democratic nomination race — is already the GOP game plan.
“Ben McAdams will be sunk by the radical socialist agenda of Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden,” said Torunn Sinclair, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Sanders’ rise struck fear in the Democratic establishment, which worried about the down-ballot impact of a contender who embraces some tenants of the socialist agenda, even if some of the senator’s plans are popular like universal health care and free education.
That worry has ebbed to some degree as Biden surged after Super Tuesday and now leads in the delegate count toward the nomination.
“That sound you hear from coast to coast is the exhaling of Democratic Party moderates,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
“It was fear of Bernie’s down-ballot effect that helped to generate Biden’s comeback,” Sabato added. “The Sanders landslide in Nevada made Democrats realize they had to rally around an alternative that could beat both Sanders and Trump, or at least not damage down-ballot moderates such as Ben McAdams.”
That said, the Democratic race for the White House is still up in the air and could possibly end in a brokered convention where either Sanders or Biden would hope to clinch the nomination at the last minute.
McAdams, who had endorsed Mike Bloomberg before the former New York City mayor abandoned his bid, isn’t yet jumping on the Biden bandwagon, though observers note he would be a better Democratic nominee for vulnerable Democrats like McAdams.
“Biden, who can be quite bland, doesn’t generate strong emotions like Sanders does,” Sabato said. “Someone such as McAdams could survive a Biden loss, whereas he could easily be swept out if Sanders tanks in November.”
For his part, McAdams said he’s not focusing on the top of the ticket come November because Utah voters know him from his time in Congress, as Salt Lake County mayor and in the state Senate.
“I think that I’m an independent,” McAdams said. “People know me by my record. And, you know, I have 10 years of a track record of people seeing me as someone who stands up for Utah values regardless of Democratic Party politics. And so I don’t see it really having much play in my race.”
That sentiment hasn’t stopped the attacks on McAdams before.
During McAdams’ run in 2018 against then-Rep. Mia Love, a Republican, her campaign launched a television ad showing former President Bill Clinton purporting to leave a voicemail for McAdams.
Neither Clinton is popular in Utah, nor is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat.
“If this seat turns over and they win the House, Nancy Pelosi will be speaker of the House,” Love warned — correctly — when sparring with McAdams two years ago.
McAdams didn’t vote for Pelosi for speaker and neither did Love’s predecessor, then-Rep. Jim Matheson, a Democrat who was always attacked over Pelosi as well, though he, too, shied away from supporting Pelosi as speaker.
This time around, the word socialist has been the go-to moniker for Republicans to bash Democrats, and McAdams knows it’s coming.
“There are going to be attack ads,” McAdams said of the forthcoming fall campaign. “But people know me. I’m a proud capitalist. I believe in the power of free markets. And I’m a moderate.”
Some of McAdams’ supporters also know the Ben-is-Bernie line is coming — and aren’t buying it.
“Ben’s Ben, you know,” said Troy Walker, a Republican and mayor of Draper who supports Trump and McAdams. “I don’t agree with Ben on everything. And frankly, I was mad at Ben for impeaching Trump. I told him so. But, you know, I think a lot of the time, more than half the time, Ben and I agree on stuff.”
Walker, who also praises GOP Reps. Chris Stewart and John Curtis, said McAdams has held town hall meetings and always welcomes feedback from his constituents and elected officials.
“He’s been out talking to people,” Walker said. “And I think he’s working on stuff that’s important to both sides of the aisle. So I think Ben does a pretty good job of trying to work for people in a way that works for Utah.”