The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

DNC race in rear view, Bernie Sanders heads to Kansas to rip Republican policies

Sen. Bernie Sanders wants Democrats to be more competitive in states traditionally dominated by Republicans. (Getty Images)
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As Democrats rebuffed his preferred candidate for party chair, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was en route to Topeka, Kan., the capital of a red state he won during the Democratic primaries. The state Democratic Party, one of very few to put up gains in the 2016 election, had invited Sanders to speak at a fundraiser; his supporters, who were winning leadership roles in the party, were set to back the bid of Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) bid to run the Democratic National Committee.

Kansas Democrats didn’t put Ellison over the top, but Sanders was happy to hear that 6,000 people would be coming to an event that drew just 500 the year before.

“One of my goals as outreach chair of the Senate Democrats is to do everything I can to make the Democratic Party competitive in red states,” Sanders said in an interview this weekend. “I think the Democratic Party has been embarrassingly bad at that recently, and we need to expand our reach.”

For much of the active, outspoken left, Ellison’s defeat Saturday at the hands of former labor secretary Tom Perez was cause for despair. Justice Democrats, one of several groups created to threaten primary challenges of moderates, said that the DNC vote would “marginalize and ignore working people in the interest of pleasing corporate donors.”

Former labor secretary Thomas Perez narrowly defeated Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for chair of the Democratic National Committee following a contentious battle over the fate of their party. Ellison called on his supporters to rally behind the new chairman. (Video: Alice Li/The Washington Post)

The Working Families Party called the vote a “missed opportunity,” and the loss of a DNC chair hopeful who was “uniquely qualified to transform that anger and fear into political power and organization.” Erstwhile Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein called the vote yet another reason for a “#DemExit.” Progressives who were more inclined to work inside the party used similarly doomy language.

“The same establishment politics that could not stop Trump will not take back Congress,” said Claire Sandberg, a Sanders campaign veteran who co-founded the WeWillReplaceYou project to run primary challenges against Democrats who abandoned the left. “Perez and the DNC need to wake up if they think an inevitable ‘market correction’ is coming without major changes to rid the party of corporate influence and empower the grassroots.”

But Sanders, who congratulated Perez but said that the party needed to reform, quickly moved on. On his way to Kansas, he tweeted a preview of his speech, a point-by-point indictment of what Kansas Republicans had achieved with a program of tax reductions and starve-the-beast spending cuts.

Sanders’s single-mindedness is, in part, designed to cut through attempts to use his critique of the party — and the 2016 primary — to split Democrats. After the DNC vote, the official Twitter account of WikiLeaks sent out eight links, from its own content and analysis by others, to stories about Perez’s work as a 2016 Clinton surrogate.

At the same time, the conservative opposition research group America Rising blasted out an email of quotes from Sanders and his allies, criticizing Perez. “Senator Bernie Sanders called Tom Perez the candidate of the ‘failed status-quo approach,’” wrote the group. “Sanders also raised the possibility that a Perez victory would make ‘people feel it’s just hopeless in terms of transforming the Democratic Party.’ Jane Sanders slammed Perez’s defense of lobbyists.”

America Rising also quoted Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s erstwhile campaign manager, who had warned that a Perez win would demoralize progressives. But in a message from Our Revolution, the Sanders-founded campaign group that Weaver now leads, he was already trying to cool tempers with the people who had come to view the DNC race as an Ellison-or-bust scenario.

“I’m sure this DNC election has stirred up similar feelings to the ones you felt during and after the primary,” wrote Weaver. “It did for me. While Tom Perez ran a good race, many who supported him used tactics that were uncalled for. But he also made promises about building a grassroots party. We are going to hold his feet to the fire. One of the first steps he could take is to reimpose the ban on lobbyist money that President Obama put in — and which those at this meeting shamefully refused to support. There’s too much at stake to let the Democratic Party continue its old (and losing) ways.”