CHICAGO — In 2016, as a candidate for president, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could count his endorsements from members of Congress on one hand. This week, he’s setting out on a six-stop, three-state tour to bolster three House candidates who share his politics.
Thursday in Chicago, Sanders will campaign for Chuy Garcia, a longtime Chicago politician who is now the odds-on favorite to replace Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) in a safe Democratic seat. On Friday, Sanders will stump in Iowa for Pete D’Alessandro, an organizer for the 2016 presidential campaign in that state now seeking the Democratic nomination in a Des Moines-centered swing seat. And on Saturday, Sanders will rally with Randy Bryce, the union organizer running as a Democratic challenger to House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.)
“Randy is clearly the underdog, but we want to show people that if you follow Ryan’s agenda of throwing tens of millions of people off health insurance, and trying to cut Social Security and Medicare, you’re going to have a real problem,” Sanders said in an interview.
Each of the three candidates is in the midst of a primary campaign.
Garcia, who was endorsed by Gutierrez as soon as the congressman announced his retirement, has already seen most of his opponents quit ahead of the March 20 election. D’Alessandro is one of six Democrats fighting for the right to challenge Rep. David Young (R-Iowa). Bryce, one of the most widely covered challengers of the 2018 cycle, is still facing a primary against a lesser-known Democrat, Cathy Myers.
But Sanders, whose last intervention in a primary was for the unsuccessful progressive candidate in Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial primary, is looking to build a bench. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s second presidential campaign, virtually the entire class of Democratic congressmen and senators backed her over Sanders.
“Chuy is someone I’ve known for years, who’d be a strong progressive voice not just on immigration reform but on all the important progressive issues,” Sanders said. “Pete’s very much a grass-roots guy who’d also be very strong voice in Congress if he wins.”
Sanders’s Midwest tour will also include rallies against the corporate and high-end tax cuts in the GOP’s 2017 tax bill. While in Chicago, he’s expected to talk to Marie Newman, a progressive challenger to Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.).
But Sanders will not be making stops on behalf of several candidates endorsed by Our Revolution, the grass-roots group he founded after the 2016 primary. That group made a high-profile and controversial endorsement this week, backing former congressman Dennis Kucinich’s bid for governor of Ohio over that of former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau director Richard Cordray.
That endorsement shocked many on the left. Kucinich, making a comeback bid after a 2012 gerrymander pushed him out of Congress, has been criticized for appearing on Fox News to defend President Trump. In May 2017, he was a rare left-wing voice attacking “the deep state” for undermining the president. Cordray, though criticized for leaving the CFPB before his term ran out, already enjoyed widespread progressive support.
“Our Revolution is doing a great job, but I am not involved with it, and it would be illegal for me to be involved,” Sanders said. “Let me be very clear: Bernie Sanders will make endorsements, and Our Revolution will make endorsements. Sometimes they will make endorsements in races I’m staying out of. I will not be making endorsements in the governor’s race in Ohio or Illinois. I’ve known Dennis Kucinich forever. I consider him a friend. But I am not making an endorsement there.”
The tax rallies will present a different challenge for Sanders.
Since December, when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act got through Congress with no Democratic or independent support, polls have found the tax cuts quickly surging in popularity. Several Republican PACs have put pro-tax-cut ads on the air. In the first congressional special election of 2018, in Pennsylvania’s 18th District, the Ryan-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund has run multiple attacks on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), portraying Democrats as snobs for not supporting the tax cuts.
“I do see polling, but it’s important for progressives to fight back,” Sanders said. “Look, only 2 percent of the American people report a raise or bonus because of the Trump tax bill. Big companies — Pfizer, Walmart — are still laying off workers. Eighty-three percent of the tax bill’s benefits still go to the top 1 percent.”
While Sanders previously rallied against the tax bill, working to defeat it entirely, he was not going to use the tour to call for the entire bill to be repealed.
“Our focus is on the middle class, and what we can provide to people without increasing the debt load for our children and grandchildren,” he said.