The meeting at the pub resembled a group-therapy session, with participants — a town mayor, a former school board member and about 15 other moderate Democrats — sharing anxiety over Tuesday’s presidential primary election in Virginia.
“I don’t get it,” Ron Goodes, 74, said to the others at the SideBar pub in Leesburg, referring to how the primary elections have gone so far. “I don’t get why there’s such disarray, why there’s sniping, why there is less focus on ‘what I can do’ as opposed to ‘how lousy that other person is.’ It’s just a freaking mess.”
“I can’t vote for Bernie,” said Sara Gallagher, 69. “He’s just too left for me.”
In the affluent Northern Virginia suburbs that will be ground zero for Democratic turnout in November, an “anybody but Bernie” movement is struggling to take hold.
Moderate Virginia voters have turned out in droves for Democratic candidates since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, powering the party’s takeover of the U.S. House, both chambers of the state legislature and county boards in booming suburbs such as Prince William and Loudoun counties.
Now, those same voters are bouncing between presidential candidates, hoping that someone — anyone — can generate enough excitement to foil a November matchup between Sanders and Trump that they believe would be disastrous.
Some see Sanders as a divisive populist who will turn off independents and moderate Republicans who are crucial in swing states such as Pennsylvania or Michigan. Others, averse to the democratic socialist’s calls for Medicare-for-all and free college tuition, say they could stay home on Election Day if Sanders is the nominee.
After canvassing for and donating to Democrats at the state and local level, they are ambivalent, at best, about billionaire Mike Bloomberg, former vice president Joe Biden, ex-South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Their uncertainty was reflected in a Monmouth University poll last month that showed just 1 in 4 Democratic voters in Virginia were sure about whom they prefer — and that those who back Sanders, as opposed to the rest of the field, were enthusiastic about their choice.
“Moderates are very conflicted about the strengths of candidates in their lane,” said Quentin Kidd, director of Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy. “There’s just not a candidate who is as exciting or energetic as, oddly enough, 78-year-old Bernie Sanders is.”
Virginia’s long history of across-the-aisle politics makes the state seemingly fertile ground for a presidential candidate who hovers closer to the center than Sanders. In 2016, Democrats in the state chose Hillary Clinton over Sanders nearly 2 to 1.
Yet, with establishment Democratic officials aligning themselves with different moderates — or not endorsing at all — Sanders appears poised to take a sizable portion of Virginia’s 99 delegates into what is shaping up to potentially be the first seriously contested Democratic Party convention in 52 years.
The same Monmouth University poll showed him locked in a tie at the top of the field with Bloomberg, the former New York mayor who will appear on the ballot for the first time in the 14 Super Tuesday states and has saturated Virginia with campaign ads. Biden and Buttigieg were second and third, respectively.
But while Sanders has since gone on to decisively win the Nevada caucuses, Bloomberg has faced withering attacks on the debate stage over alleged mistreatment of women in his media company and a stop-and-frisk policy during his mayoral term that targeted African Americans and Latinos.
An accompanying tide of uncertainty has rolled through Democratic social media chat groups, debate watch parties and even candidate rallies in Northern Virginia.
Outside a Warren rally in Arlington on Feb. 13, Marguerite Metzler said that “it’s disturbing” to think of Bloomberg, a former Republican, as the only viable alternative to Sanders, whose “building-the-base strategy” she compared to Trump’s.
Though she believes Warren could be an effective president, Metzler, 69, said the senator may have blown her chances of winning in Virginia.
“There are people who like her but haven’t liked some of her ideas,” she said. “And I think she squandered that by building such a strong association with free college and Medicare-for-all.”
After ticking off a list of misgivings over the other Democratic candidates — Biden lacks energy, Buttigieg is inexperienced — Metzler, who lives in Springfield, landed on a possible choice: “Maybe Amy?”
Sanders’s supporters don’t understand the confusion.
During a recent debate watch party in Fairfax City, Amber Beichler and Isabelle Oldfield happily cheered as Warren and the other candidates laid into Bloomberg, while Sanders emerged relatively unscathed.
Both argued that the senator from Vermont is the only one who can inspire enough passion among Democrats to defeat Trump. They cited the support he has received so far from white, Latino and African American voters worried about climate change, rising health-care costs and stagnant wages in an otherwise robust economy — all of which Sanders has vowed to fix.
“It’ll be that inspiring platform that will get people off the couch and into the voting booth,” said Beichler, 29, of Herndon.
Added Oldfield, 24, who lives in Reston, “He’s actually the perfect candidate to run against Trump, because you need a populist to win against a populist.”
Nearby, Mike Miner, 35, who supports Warren and is also from Reston, was philosophical about why Democrats are anxious about Sanders and unsure about who else should take on the president.
“When you talk to people, their number one issue is defeating Donald Trump,” Miner said. “You cannot run this experiment multiple times and see which candidate does better, which one does a little bit worse. You’re going off your gut. And that’s why you’re seeing such huge fluctuations in polls and support rising and falling.”
At a Buttigieg rally in Arlington this past weekend, Joseph Brecht, 21, advertised himself as the kind of voter Democrats yearn to win over. The George Mason University student held up a “Republicans for Pete” sign that drew cheers from anyone who saw it, saying he voted for Trump in 2016 but is now disillusioned.
“I consider myself a moderate Republican, but I’m not a socialist,” Brecht said, referring to Sanders. In November, “I’m going to try to support the Democratic nominee, but if it’s someone I really can’t stand, I’m just not going to vote for that office.”
Jill Weiss, 49, showed up to the rally wearing a red Moms Demand Action T-shirt. The group is an offshoot of the Everytown for Gun Safety group funded by Bloomberg that was instrumental in helping Democrats seize control of the General Assembly in the fall.
“It doesn’t mean I support Bloomberg,” Weiss, of Leesburg, quickly said. She is leaning toward Biden because of his foreign policy experience but is also open to Buttigieg and Klobuchar. Reflecting on the possibility of a Sanders nomination, Weiss added: “I always thought I was a liberal Democrat. But everything has shifted.”
Inside the Leesburg pub, the group attending the event organized by the Loudoun County Democratic Committee expressed frustration with that shifting terrain.
The suburb was key in Democratic victories in the fall in the statehouse and on the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors. In 2018, Loudoun also propelled Democrat Jennifer Wexton to victory over GOP incumbent Barbara Comstock, helping to fuel a new Democratic House majority.
Yet that afternoon, there were the formerly energized voters, wearing “Hello my name is . . .” tags and openly worrying about not having a significant voice in what they see as the mother of all elections.
“I’m seriously contemplating not voting on March 3, which, for me, is really weird,” said Charlotte McConnell, 40. “I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.”
Gallagher, who said she is vehemently opposed to Sanders, said she will probably not cast a ballot in November if he gets the nomination. Jessica Puentes, 31, said she will probably stay home if Bloomberg is the Democratic nominee.
Tony Fasolo, 82, lamented the strain that Sanders’s 2016 presidential run had on his relationship with his son, who backed Sanders over Clinton and still “doesn’t talk to me too much.”
Kelly Burke, the Leesburg mayor, said that without a candidate who has the same kind of gravitational pull that Sanders has, many moderates feel stuck.
“We all realize what’s at stake, in that this election matters probably like no election in the life of this country, and that’s why we’re struggling,” she said. “We don’t want to make a mistake.”