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As Bernie Sanders recovers, health scare may become 2020 issue

Senator Bernie Sanders. Sarah Rice/New York Times/File 2019

Senator Bernie Sanders said Wednesday that he is “feeling good” after undergoing an emergency medical procedure this week to have two stents inserted in an artery.

But the political fallout from his health incident may reverberate long after the Vermonter returns to the campaign trail.

The scare, several political analysts asserted, highlights Sanders’ age and, in a crowded field just four months before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucus, could give voters pause about the 78-year-old liberal and potentially boost Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“While Sanders might be totally fine, any kind of serious health scare involving a candidate this late in the campaign is going to elevate questions about his age,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “A lot of Democrats want a candidate who can beat Trump and wage a months-long campaign. With Sanders, there are now questions about his health, with [former vice president Joe] Biden there are questions about his off-script moments where you wonder, ‘What he is thinking?’ ”

“This whole episode works to Warren’s advantage,” Abramowitz said.


All of Sanders’s scheduled campaign events have been canceled until further notice. And a first round of television ads has also been axed, at least in Iowa, his campaign said Wednesday

Still, provided Sanders makes a full recovery, Democratic consultant Erik Smith expects Sanders’s supporters to stick with the Vermont senator.

“Where this health scare may have an impact is among voters still making up their minds. Sanders needs to grow his level of support and something like this could give people pause,” said Smith, who has worked on a number of Democratic presidential campaigns but is neutral in the 2020 contest.

Poll after poll shows Warren is, by far, the preferred “second choice” among likely Democratic primary voters who back someone else. This means that should voters sour on their current favorite, they might consider Warren next. For example, a recent Morning Consult/Politico national poll found that nearly a third of Sanders supporters could turn to Warren.


In a statement Wednesday morning, the campaign said that during an event in Las Vegas Tuesday night, Sanders began to feel some chest discomfort. After a full medical evaluation, it was determined there was a blockage in one of his arteries, and two stents were successfully inserted. This is the second time Sanders needed medical treatment this year. In March, he needed seven stitches after he cut his head on a hotel shower door, which was not a result of a fall.

As Sanders rests in the Las Vegas area, his heart incident serves as a reminder that the three top Democratic contenders are among the oldest candidates to ever run for president. Sanders is 78, Biden is 76, and Warren is 70. All are trying to defeat Donald Trump, 73, who was the oldest person to assume the presidency.

Still, Sanders is far from formally suspending his campaign or dropping out. Stent insertions are a relatively common medical procedure that don’t sideline most people, allowing them to return to work and life.

That’s why Steve Rosenthal, a veteran national Democratic strategist and labor leader, is skeptical Sanders’s time off the trail will have any lasting effect.

“It is a rigorous thing to run for the White House, and it takes a lot out of people,” Rosenthal said. “Voters will have to decide whether these candidates are up to the task, but so far this sounds like this is a pretty minor procedure for Sanders.”


Sanders tweeted late Wednesday afternoon that he is “feeling good. I’m fortunate to have good health care and great doctors and nurses helping me to recover.”

Always on message, Sanders added that “None of us know when a medical emergency might affect us. And no one should fear going bankrupt if it occurs. Medicare for All!”

Sanders isn’t the first national candidate to have heart issues in the midst of a campaign. President Dwight Eisenhower won reelection after a serious heart attack. George H.W. Bush was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat while in office. Dick Cheney suffered his fourth heart attack just before becoming vice president.

The closest analogy for what Sanders is going through now was in 1999, when former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley, running for the Democratic nomination for president, was hospitalized during his presidential campaign for treatment of an irregular heartbeat, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

However, Sanders’s health concerns coincide with overall questions about his campaign’s political health. National and early state polls show Warren either tied or taking the lead from Biden, while Sanders’s poll numbers have dropped.

That said, just hours before Sanders went into the hospital, the campaign was in a good mood. It announced the senator had raised $25.3 million in the third quarter of the year, which could lead the entire field by the time all candidates announce their own amounts in the next few weeks.


While Sanders is sidelined, Biden’s family is mired — fairly or unfairly — in a scandal at the center of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry, which involves Trump wanting dirt about Biden’s son’s involvement with a Ukrainian energy company.

Which leaves Warren, who wished Sanders a speedy recovery, as the only top-tier candidate running at full throttle.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: