In the closing days of the Democratic presidential primary, is Bernie Sanders shifting to legacy mode?
It's a fair question to ask as he's taken what feels like a more prominent role in recent days endorsing progressive candidates across the country,. Over the weekend, he took sides in one of the most high-profile congressional primaries, and on Tuesday he asked his supporters for money to support the campaigns of eight state legislative candidates from California to his home state of Vermont.
The obvious takeaway from these endorsements is this: Sanders appears to be trying to extend his legacy beyond his improbably successful presidential campaign by passing the baton to other candidates.
The timing of Sanders's endorsement blitz is pretty conspicuous -- the last major round of Democratic primaries is June 7, and it's almost mathematically impossible for him to grab the nomination from Hillary Clinton without massive wins in states like California and New Jersey.
But beyond his legacy, there are probably a few more immediate political reasons Sanders is lending his name and star power to help progressive candidates right now, say Joe Trippi and Paul Maslin, both Democratic strategists and alumni of the 2004 Howard Dean presidential campaign.
Let's dissect how Sanders entering the endorsement game can help him in the short and long run, nomination or not:
It helps blunt criticism that he's only been raising money for himself: Sanders has been a prolific fundraiser, even outraising Clinton for several months this spring thanks to his extraordinary small-donor, grass-roots support. But Clinton's campaign has retorted that she's also been out there raising money for congressional Democrats. Taking a more active endorsement role could be Sanders's (somewhat delayed) response to show he is a team player in his newfound party, said Trippi, who was the campaign manager for Dean's campaign.
It helps keep donors excited about his campaign: You can only send so many fundraising emails a day/week/month/quarter featuring your core message. "You've got to give people reasons to give," Trippi said. Highlighting a refugee from Mozambique who's running for a state legislative seat in South Dakota, or the son of Jamaican immigrants who is running for a second term in Wisconsin is a good way to try to do it.
It gives him leverage with the establishment: There's no question Sanders has power in the Democratic Party right now, even if he recently declared war on its established leaders with some of his endorsements.
Love him or hate him, the Democratic Party needs Sanders, Maslin said. It is facing the prospect of a general election campaign with an unpopular nominee at the top of the ticket and could use some of the enthusiasm, popularity and goodwill Sanders brings with his supporters.
"We have the best of both worlds," Maslin said. "We have a good, strong candidate who can take on and beat Donald Trump, and we have a guy who has the ability to mobilize the base in terms of voters and money and grassroots support."
By staying in the game with his endorsements, Sanders could be indicating to the establishment he's not going to just fade away after the July convention in Cleveland. Instead, he could be indicating he plans to use his popularity as leverage after the campaign.
"He has more impact with the establishment on a bill or at the convention, to the extent his base is active," Trippi said.
He's thinking about his legacy: You've heard it before from Sanders and will probably hear it again before this campaign is over: He wants to get big money out of politics. Badly. He has tried to do that by running for president, and it looks like he's going to come up short. But he can still carry on the fight in other ways. Like, say, endorsing progressive candidates.
It's natural for campaigns -- whether successful or not -- to transition from getting their guy or girl elected into a broader mission of supporting candidates they agree with, Trippi said. Dean America became Democracy for America. Obama for America became Organizing for Action.
As much as he won't admit it publicly, Sanders may be looking ahead to that moment when his race ends without the nomination and he has to ask, "What's next?"
For all the reasons described above, lending his star power to progressive candidates seems like a logical answer to that.