The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bernie Sanders’s supporters take sides over whether he should stay in the race or consider departing

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) addresses the media at Hotel Vermont during a press conference on March 11 in Burlington, Vt.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) addresses the media at Hotel Vermont during a press conference on March 11 in Burlington, Vt. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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Sen. Bernie Sanders’s lengthy deliberations about the future of his presidential campaign have exposed divisions in his movement between die-hard liberal activists with little appetite to fall in line behind former vice president Joe Biden and more conventional Democrats who see some merit in Sanders (I-Vt.) withdrawing from the race.

After revelations that some top aides and allies have urged the senator to consider ending his campaign, some Sanders supporters voiced alarm about the people surrounding him and have even called for their ouster.

The Washington Post reported Saturday that the group lobbying him to consider withdrawing included campaign manager Faiz Shakir and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a top Sanders surrogate and ally, according to the two people with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive private discussions.

“They shouldn’t be part of the campaign,” said RoseAnn DeMoro in an interview Monday, speaking of anyone encouraging him to consider bowing out. A longtime friend of Sanders and a former head of a national nurses’ union, DeMoro added, “If people want to go work on K Street right now, go. The base is attached to the movement and Bernie, not operatives.”

Sanders, who has fallen far behind Biden in the chase for delegates to the summer nominating convention with almost no realistic path to catching him, has not declared his intentions beyond saying he is assessing his path forward.

He has been sounding out many top supporters in recent weeks. Shortly before she participated in a virtual roundtable with Sanders on March 22, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) advised him in a telephone call to remain in the contest, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has campaigned for Sanders, has talked openly about the need for Democrats to unite behind a possible Biden nomination. After Sanders’s losses on Super Tuesday, she said that the election was “more important than all of us.”

Still, her team and the Sanders camp remain in contact — Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign manager Rebecca Rodriguez spoke to Shakir on Sunday, according to a spokesperson.

The uncertainty has created some tension in the universe of Sanders supporters, which includes legions of everyday people who have donated to his campaign, lawmakers who have endorsed him and activists and advisers he has consulted.

“If I was told who the nominee was going to be, but I didn’t get to vote, I would feel disenfranchised,” said Randy Bryce, a Sanders state co-chair and former congressional candidate who wants him to keep running at least through the last primaries in June. “People will feel like they’re not going to matter in one of those later states if there’s not a primary.”

Bryce’s home state of Wisconsin was set on Tuesday to be the first state in three weeks to hold a primary. But it was cast into doubt Monday when Gov. Tony Evers (D) suspended in-person voting; later in the day the state Supreme Court overturned his action after a legal challenge from the state’s GOP legislative leaders.

Some close Sanders allies had said the outcome in Wisconsin could offer more clarity about the senator’s future. They predicted that a landslide loss, as recent polling has predicted, might persuade him to end his bid. Evers’s executive order would have extended the mail-in voting deadline to June 9.

On Monday, Our Revolution, a nonprofit aligned with Sanders, sent an email to supporters with the subject line “Tell Bernie if you’ll have his back if he stays in the presidential race.”

“If Bernie remains in the race, he will undoubtedly be over the 25% threshold necessary to get enough members on the Rules and Platform Committees who can fight for our vision of a progressive party,” said the email, which was signed by Larry Cohen, board chairman of Our Revolution.

The rules changes that Sanders allies fought for after the 2016 race, including one that prevents automatic “superdelegates” from voting on the first ballot of the convention, would expire unless agreed to by the key committees this year.

“Things like that would be at risk if the senator doesn’t hit 15 percent in the remaining primaries,” said Paco Fabian, a spokesman for Our Revolution. “We have very little confidence, if not zero, that the rules implemented last time would remain in place. We need to make sure they’re made permanent.”

Beyond Shakir and Jayapal, longtime strategist Jeff Weaver has privately made a case that exiting the race more quickly and on good terms with Biden would give Sanders added leverage in the long run, according to one of the people who described the discussions; the other said Weaver has used a light touch in presenting his case.

Early Sunday morning, after The Post reported those internal deliberations, “People for Bernie,” a group of pro-Sanders activists, tweeted, “Bernie Sanders should not drop out. Pass it on.”

Those close to Sanders say he is focused heavily on the coronavirus crisis and they are not certain what he will decide. Over the past few weeks, he has used his campaign as a vehicle to champion the liberal ideas he believes the government should adopt to combat the crisis, such as universal health care coverage.

Gone are the raucous rallies that have been deemed unsafe during the spread of the virus. Instead, he has hosted events with experts, musical guests and political allies, streamed live on the Internet.

Sanders has ceased his direct attacks on Biden, even as some allies, including DeMoro and Bryce, have not. The senator said recently that he would like to debate Biden again, while Biden has argued that there have been enough debates. A Democratic National Committee spokeswoman said Monday that she had no new updates on whether there would be another primary debate.

The two men talked recently when Biden called Sanders to inform him, as a courtesy, that he would soon be beginning the process to pick a running mate.

With the Senate out of session and much of the country hunkering down, Sanders has been at home in Vermont. A pair of aides — one who handles logistics and another responsible for video live streams — have been with him, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, but senior staff are working from their homes.

On Sunday, at least one staffer was making a public push for a prolonged primary fight.

“Four out of five of the largest Black populations in the country haven’t voted. And some of you want to call off the primary. Your interest in the franchise is self interest, and it shows,” tweeted Briahna Joy Gray, national press secretary for the Sanders campaign.