Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) wasted no time in denouncing presidential candidate Bernie Sanders this week after he said he would skip the annual conference of the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“Senator Sanders’ comments only contribute to the divisive rhetoric often used when discussing the issue of Israel’s right to exist,” Luria said in a statement Tuesday that rocketed around social media.

Her swift reaction was an example of the tactics she and other centrist Democrats may use to try to steer clear of the senator from Vermont, an avowed democratic socialist, if he wins their party’s presidential nomination.

Analysts say Sanders could endanger down-ballot incumbents, especially moderates such as Luria, a Navy veteran who ousted a Republican in a swing district in 2018 and helped Democrats win control of the House.

Already, GOP candidates and groups targeting the once deep-red Virginia districts held by Luria, Rep. Abigail Spanberger and Rep. Jennifer Wexton have tried to link the freshman lawmakers to Sanders and others in the party’s left flank. Luria, who has endorsed former vice president Joe Biden, won’t risk being painted as a Sanders acolyte especially when it comes to one of her signature issues: Israel.

“I’ll say this: I want Joe Biden or another person who I see as a reasonable moderate, who is going to build bridges rather than break them down,” she said in an interview Monday.

In 2018, Luria, Spanberger and Wexton appealed to moderate Democrats and Republican-leaning independents by promising to work with Republicans and vote independent of their parties.

Sanders, who favors starkly liberal positions such as a single-payer health-care system, free public college and a national $15 minimum wage, could force them to go on the defensive and undermine their efforts to win a second term.

“The Democratic nominee doesn’t matter much except if it’s Sanders,” said Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.

At the same time, she predicted down-ballot Democrats will be more willing to distance themselves from Sanders than Republicans have been with President Trump. “The Democratic Party doesn’t have a reputation for falling in line,” she said.

A Monmouth University poll of likely voters in Virginia — one of 14 states with primaries on Super Tuesday — found Sanders tied for first place with former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg. Each had 22 percent support, followed by Biden with 18 percent. The poll was taken last week, before Sanders’s decisive win Saturday in the Nevada caucus.

Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said Spanberger and Luria have the most to lose with Sanders at the top of the ticket. Sanders plans to barnstorm Virginia ahead of the primary, with rallies Thursday in Richmond as well as Saturday in Wexton’s hometown of Leesburg, and Virginia Beach, in Luria’s district.

“The voters in their district turned Democrat because each of them ran as political centrists,” Rozell said. “But the voters could turn right back again if they perceive that the Democratic Party is captured by the ideological extreme wing.”

The stage was set for the clash with Luria on Sunday, when Sanders said he would continue his practice of skipping the annual AIPAC conference.

“I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights,” Sanders tweeted.

In a second tweet, he added, “As president, I will support the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians and do everything possible to bring peace and security to the region.”

Luria, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, responded within 24 hours.

“This is exactly the kind of divisive politics that gets in the way of the US-Israel partnership,” she said in an interview Monday. “It’s truly disappointing [for him] to malign other people within the party who are strong supporters of the US-Israel relationship.”

AIPAC has been criticized for its strong support of the Israeli government and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even as international criticism mounts of the country’s treatment of Palestinians.

But the group has long touted itself as bipartisan and included leading Democrats as well as Republicans at its annual conference. Luria has said she believes AIPAC offers a well-rounded perspective. She has appeared onstage at AIPAC’s conference, and the group’s charitable arm funded her first trip to Israel, weeks before she was sworn into office.

Luria endorsed Biden last month, joined by fellow freshman moderate Reps. Chrissy Houlahan and Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania. The former vice president, she said, would “defeat Donald Trump and win in tough districts like mine.”

In the interview Monday, she said Biden has the experience to strengthen the status of the United States in the world and reengage with NATO and U.S. allies.

But the National Republican Congressional Committee is already taunting her about Sanders, asking in a mass email Tuesday: “Is she ready to reverse course and refuse to support the socialist and upset her socialist base?”

Spanberger and Wexton have not made endorsements in the presidential contest, and have no plans to at the moment. Spanberger, a former CIA officer, said she has already cast her absentee ballot; she declined to reveal her choice or rule anyone out.

Rob Jones, one of several Republicans vying to challenge Wexton in November, suggested last week that because Wexton often votes the same way as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a top Sanders surrogate, Wexton must support Sanders.

Wexton balked at that logic, and said: “I will not be supporting Bernie Sanders in this primary.” She said she favors a candidate who will work to lower health-care costs, reduce gun violence, strengthen the middle class and bolster the federal workforce.

In 2018, Wexton defeated Republican Barbara Comstock, who Rozell noted was in a similar bind when it came to President Trump. Comstock disavowed Trump, who was deeply unpopular in Virginia, and even called for him to drop out of the race.

“He wins, she loses,” Rozell said. “Remarkable.”

How Rep. Elaine Luria’s faith inspired her to speak out on Israel, impeachment

Democratic Reps. Luria and Spanberger of Virginia join calls for Trump’s impeachment

ERA deadline: Virginia congresswoman to preside at historic vote in House

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Bernie Sanders has won the Nevada caucuses, following a victory in New Hampshire and a near-tie in Iowa. See full results here. South Carolina holds its primary Saturday, but first, candidates will meet for a debate in Charleston on Tuesday. Just days after South Carolina: Super Tuesday, when 14 states and American Samoa hold primaries and award a lot of delegates.

The candidates: The major candidates competing in South Carolina are former vice president Joe Biden; former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.); Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.); Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); and investor Tom Steyer. Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg is not competing until Super Tuesday.

Policy: Candidates have laid out where they stand on a number of issues. Answer some of the questions yourself and see who agrees with you.

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