Late Monday night, Levi Sanders announced that he would be running for Congress in New Hampshire’s 1st District. Before the sun set Tuesday, more than 50 people had signed up to volunteer for the 48-year-old lawyer’s first campaign for elected office.
“We’re two separate and distinct individuals,” Levi Sanders said in a short phone interview. “He’s doing his thing, and I’m doing my thing. We talk about a variety of issues, including politics. In this race, I’m going to talk about the issues that average working-class Americans are concerned about.”
The younger Sanders, who has lived in New Hampshire for 14 years, surprised Democrats by entering the race. The House seat in the 1st District, which Donald Trump won by just 1.6 points in 2016, opened after Rep. Carol Shea-Porter (D-N.H.) announced her retirement. Seven Democrats had already jumped at the chance to replace her, including Obama administration veteran Maura Sullivan and New Hampshire Executive Council member Chris Pappas. Bernie Sanders carried the 1st District, like the rest of the state, by a landslide in the 2016 presidential primary against Hillary Clinton.
The elder Sanders, who has made several trips to New Hampshire since the 2016 election, did not endorse his son. “Levi will be running his own campaign, in his own way, with his own ideas,” the Vermont independent said in a statement. “The decision as to who to vote for will be determined by the people of New Hampshire’s first district, and nobody else.”
But Levi Sanders inherited some of his father’s baggage — animus from Clinton supporters who remain frustrated about the 2016 primary and its aftermath. Even before Sanders made the bid official, critics had compiled some of his tweets from the 2016 campaign, in which he warned that many on the left were too dismissive of Trump’s appeal.
In one tweet, linking to a Wall Street Journal story about President Trump’s inaugural address, Sanders wrote that “he taps into the anger and economic pain so many people see in their lives.” In another, Sanders seemed to criticize the decision by then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to prevent motorists from getting the Confederate flag printed on their license plates: “While lawful, this hurts peoples’ rights.”
On Tuesday, Sanders said that he “sent out a lot of tweets” and was “a big fan of the First Amendment,” urging voters to look at his broader points.
“The bottom line, as you know, is that different people have different opinions, and when you send out a lot of tweets, people are going to have a lot of opinions about them,” Sanders said. “But in 2016, I hung out in rural Pennsylvania and rural Ohio. I can tell you, very clearly, that in 2016, there were going to be some real problems with electing Hillary Clinton. I talked to union folks who were die-hard Democrats and said they would never, ever, ever vote for Hillary Clinton.”
Asked about the tweets that pointed to Trump’s appeal, Sanders said that Democrats had alienated some voters they did not need to when they made demographic assumptions about them instead of offering them populist economic ideas.
“I think the reality is that you have to talk about the issues,” Sanders said. “Simply put, if you’re a man or you’re a woman, that shouldn’t be a reason that somebody votes for you. You have to earn every vote. We need to reach out for working-class folks. We need a 50-state strategy. And the simple fact is we need to deal with economics and address the fact that the rich are getting richer while the middle class is getting squeezed. I think we’ll find that a bunch of people agree with us.”
On those issues, Sanders lined up closely with his father. “I believe in a Medicare-for-all system, one that guarantees basic coverage for everybody with no co-pays,” he said. “I believe that the $7.25 minimum wage is unacceptable and we need to significantly increase it.” He clarified that he would support legislation that raised the wage, over time, to $15 per hour.
Asked about gun legislation — an issue where his father had sometimes clashed with Democrats — Sanders said he was sounding out opinions and in favor of some new laws.
“What I can tell you is that I talk to teachers and they don’t want guns in their classrooms,” he said. “I’m happy to talk more about this during the campaign — I’ve been in this for less than 24 hours. There’s a lot of sensible gun owners out there, and I’ve heard from them about why we should have stronger background checks.”
One issue that trips up some Democratic candidates — and one that Bernie Sanders no longer has to deal with — is whether Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) should remain leader of her party in the House.
“At this point, I think a new leader is something that would be wise for Democrats,” Levi Sanders said. “Do I have the name of someone else I’d vote for? Not right now. But I have some concerns about Pelosi.”