Sanders Risks Getting Crowded Out in 2020 Field of Progressives

February 10, 2019

By Arit John

WASHINGTON— Bernie Sanders’ army of fervent progressives will be up for grabs in 2020 even if the Vermont independent again runs for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sanders may be a victim of his own success in driving the party to the left with his 2016 run. The field of Democratic presidential candidates includes at least a half-dozen candidates who’ve adopted in whole or in part the platform that helped Sanders build a loyal following of young voters and liberals: Medicare for all, a $15-an-hour minimum wage and debt-free college education.

“There will be hardcore, hard-left progressives who will have nobody but Bernie, but there won’t be many,” said Howard Dean, a former presidential candidate and Democratic National Committee chairman.

Sanders consistently polls well ahead of the other Democrats who’ve announced plans to run in the 2020 primaries and behind former Vice President Joe Biden, who also is considering entering the race and would be a moderate alternative. But polls also show that Democrats are more focused on nominating a candidate who can beat President Donald Trump than they are with policy positions Sanders used to drive his surprisingly competitive challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Dean, a Sanders critic who endorsed Clinton in the last race, said that while many Sanders supporters felt he “got cheated” during the 2016 primary race, they voted for Clinton in the general election. “That phenomenon is going to be amplified 100 percent this time around because people really, really want change,” he said.

In addition to finding his message echoed by other candidates, Sanders, 77, would be competing with a younger and diverse field of candidates at a time when the votes of women, minorities and young people are driving Democratic politics.

“You are always in a stronger position to expand your base, if you have a strong base. And Bernie Sanders has a strong base inside the Democratic Party,” said Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Sanders. “If he decides to run again, I’m confident his message is as powerful today as it was in 2016, and he will be able to build a broad winning coalition.”

Organizing for Bernie, a group founded by former Sanders staffers, is leading a coalition of pro-Sanders groups in a campaign to demonstrate that the senator still has support to sustain a potential campaign. The coalition includes Progressive Democrats of America and Our Revolution, which was formed in the wake of Sanders’ 2016 campaign.

“He didn’t just run for president in 2016, he really built a movement,” said Nina Turner, the president of Our Revolution. “For us, and for other groups that are really pushing the senator to really get out there and run, we really want him to finish what he started and to know that there is a huge base of support for him if he decides to do it.”

Some of those past supporters are weighing their options, or considering their own odds. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat and popular surrogate for Sanders in 2016, announced her presidential candidacy last month. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the lone member of that chamber to endorse Sanders, has said he’s considering running.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is among the announced candidates who offer an alternative to Sanders on policy. Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist who worked on Cynthia Nixon’s challenge to New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, wrote in an email that Warren is “proving to be formidable.”

“She has the progressive populism of Bernie Sanders, but backed with substantive and innovative policy proposals and, frankly, a better story,” she wrote. “And also, as we saw in these past elections, I would not discount gender as a plus here.”

Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Warren has been consistent on policy and “meets this moment” as Democrats seek to take back the White House.

Green said he expects PCCC — which coined the phrase “the Elizabeth Warren Wing of the party” and campaigned to encourage her to run for her Senate seat in 2012 — will endorse Warren. In 2016 the group stayed neutral in the Democratic primary.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, endorsed Sanders early in the 2016 presidential campaign. Jayapal said Sanders’ consistency on issues “gets him a lot of trust with the progressive movement versus some people who are newer to taking on some of these issues.”

As a CPC co-chair, however, Jayapal said she won’t endorse any candidates early. The caucus plans to invite candidates to meet with members for an interview, interact with them, and fill out a questionnaire on their policies on Medicare for all, debt-free college for all, infrastructure, collective bargaining and other issues, she said.

“I certainly have a lot of gratitude and respect for Senator Sanders and I’m really happy that I endorsed him last time,” she said. “But there is a different field now and I think we need to let it shake out a little bit.”

Members of Democracy for America, which grew out of Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, overwhelmingly voted to endorse Sanders in 2016, even though Dean supported Clinton. Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the group, said it’s unclear whether any candidate will gain the support of a supermajority of members, the threshold required for an endorsement.

“We have a much wider field this time and it’s going to be way more important for each candidate to express with clarity what their progressive positions are,” Chamberlain said. “Whereas in 2016 it was pretty straightforward.”

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey became the latest Democrat to enter the race, joining California Sen. Kamala Harris and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Warren of Massachusetts announced exploratory committees, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota is expected to announce her campaign plans Sunday. A wider field of mayors, governors, business executives and members of Congress are also weighing runs.

Many of the candidates, particularly those in the Senate, have embraced many of the progressive ideas that set Sanders apart from Clinton in 2016. After Warren announced a proposal for a “wealth tax” on 2 percent on net worth above $50 million, as well as 3 percent on billionaires, Sanders proposed a dramatic expansion of the estate tax. Booker and Harris have bills to direct funds to lower income Americans.

“Inclusive populism is clearly the future of the party, it’s the future of America, it’s what people want to see,” Chamberlain said.


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