Why top Republicans are working doggedly to help Bernie Sanders

There is some history in both parties when it comes to boosting the stature of an opposition candidate.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. steps off his bus as he arrives to speak at a town hall, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2016, at Santa Maria Winery in Carroll, Iowa.

Some of the most powerful figures in the Republican Party are doing everything they can to help Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders.

It's been a strange race from the start – an insult-spewing outsider trumps an establishment favorite on one side; a Denmark-loving socialist mounts a serious challenge on the other – and during Sunday evening's fourth Democratic presidential debate, things got stranger.

During the debate, the Republican National Committee sent out four separate e-mails defending the Vermont senator against Hillary Clinton on issues ranging from single-payer healthcare to guns to Wall Street, as reporters noted across Twitter.

On Twitter, Sean Spicer, the RNC's chief spokesman and strategist, tweeted multiple messages supporting Sanders and his points with the pro-Sanders hashtag #FeelTheBern.

And following the debate, Republican operatives did their best to cast Sanders as the debate winner.

"Clinton needed a win last night. Instead, everyone is talking about how well Bernie Sanders, her chief rival, did,” Jeff Bechdel, a spokesman with the Republican political action committee America Rising, told reporters.

Call it a long-running tradition of campaign capers, a sincere understanding of the saying, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."

For Republican strategists eager to help their chief enemy's enemy, strengthening Sanders now will weaken Mrs. Clinton in the general election. At least, that's the theory. 

“My guess is that Republican operatives know that Clinton is likely to win the nomination even if Sanders upsets her in Iowa and New Hampshire. But an extended challenge will force her to use up money too early, and nudge her farther to the left,” Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, told Bloomberg News. “[A]t this stage, campaigns will grab for every advantage they can get.”

In fact, all the way back in June 2015, the conservative National Review ran a piece urging readers to "Support Bernie Sanders! This is a call to action for every Republican anxious to win back the White House in 2016."

"Republicans have a pre-primary opportunity to strengthen Bernie Sanders’s financial position so that he will have ample resources to dog Clinton and turn her into a raging leftist during the primary season," Myra Adams, a conservative writer and former Bush and McCain staffer, wrote for the Review. 

In fact, Sanders is competitive in both Iowa, which hosts the country's first caucus, and New Hampshire, which hosts the country's first primary. Sanders wins in those states could seriously injure Clinton's national lead.

And some Republicans are already salivating at the prospect of a Sanders nomination.

“We're going to win every state,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said in last week's Republican debate, “if Bernie Sanders is the nominee.”

"Wild, socialistic, liberal Bernie Sanders" would be "easy to beat," RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said recently on the "John Gibson Show."

Of course, it's hardly the first time partisans on either side have worked subtly, or not so subtly, to choose their opponent.

In 2012, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill worked diligently to boost Republican Rep. Todd Akin in his primary race so that she could face – and beat – him in the Missouri Senate race general election. She did, and won by more than 15 points.

But perhaps the most salient example comes from 2008, when Rush Limbaugh waged a campaign, "Operation Chaos," encouraging millions of his supporters to "bloody up Obama" and prolong the Democratic primary fight by supporting – you guessed it – Hillary Clinton.

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