Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus was asked last week which Democratic presidential candidate he'd prefer to face in a general election. The RNC chief said Bernie Sanders is probably the tougher candidate.
It's obviously difficult to take Priebus' assessment at face value -- even if he has a firm opinion, the Republican has no incentive to tell the truth -- and his comments are all the more curious given what his party has been up to lately.
During Sunday's Democratic debate, for example, reporters received emails from the candidates' campaigns and their allies, but in a remarkable twist, the Republican National Committee also issued statements -- two during the event, two after -- defending Sanders against criticisms from Hillary Clinton and endorsing Sanders' arguments.
Bloomberg Politics' Sahil Kapur reported that Republican operatives have "a strange crush on Bernie Sanders," and it goes beyond the RNC's pro-Sanders rapid-response during Sunday night's debates.
After the debate, the Republican political action committee America Rising promoted the narrative that Sanders won the debate.... Meanwhile, American Crossroads, a group co-founded by Karl Rove, is airing an ad in Iowa bolstering a core tenet of Sanders' case against Clinton: that she has received large sums of campaign contributions from Wall Street, and therefore can't be trusted to crack down on big banks. "Hillary rewarded Wall Street with a $700 billion bailout, then Wall Street made her a multi-millionaire," a narrator in the ad says. "Does Iowa really want Wall Street in the White House?"
Yep, Karl Rove's operation is not only complaining about the bailout his former boss signed into law, Team Rove is also suddenly worried about Wall Street's influence in DC -- just like Bernie Sanders.
Or put another way, Reince Priebus can say he sees Sanders as a stronger general-election candidate, but his actions suggest he means the opposite.
In the larger context, the idea of partisans taking steps to choose their own opponent is hardly unprecedented. Perhaps the best recent example was the 2012 U.S. Senate race in Missouri, when Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) carefully and methodically helped boost then-Rep. Todd Akin (R) in his primary race, confident she could beat him in a general election. (She was right; McCaskill won by over 15 points.)
In other words, Republicans taking steps to help Sanders is hardly unprecedented. It's electoral mischief, but it's a time-honored tradition.
I'd add just one thing: just because the right sees Sanders as easier to beat in November doesn't mean Republicans are correct. Conservatives appear convinced that Clinton would be a tougher candidate, but it's possible they're miscalculating. Sometimes the practice of "picking your opponent" backfires.
At least for now, however, when Clinton says she's the candidate the GOP doesn't want to face in the fall, her claim is bolstered by the evidence.