Sen. Bernie Sanders says his “political revolution” is about more than winning the White House. It is also about transforming Congress — which, in the past, has been happy to ignore Sanders’s proposals for universal health insurance and free college tuition.
But, in campaigns for the House and Senate, the revolution is not going well.
There are more than 30 Sanders supporters running, including a “Saturday Night Live” alum in Iowa; a former truck driver in South Carolina, who got himself tattooed with a silhouette of Sanders’s unruly crown of hair; and a California hay farmer, who’s so convinced he’s the Bernie Sanders of San Luis Obispo that he has printed bumper stickers that say “Feel the Bill.”
The problem is that only a handful of these “Bernie-crats” — four, at best — have any shot at winning.
The rest are a disorganized, underfunded group of little-knowns and political novices, including many who jumped into races with very long odds. One is trying to beat the head of the Democratic Party in a Democratic primary. Another is trying to beat the Republican speaker of the House in a solid Republican district. In two districts, there are actually two Bernie-crats running, taking donations to battle each other.
And most of them have received little help — in the form of endorsements, advice or fundraising assistance — from Sanders’s presidential campaign or its allied groups.
“Financially, I’m not on the map. Infrastructure, I’m not on the map. Both of my opponents have put out polls where I’m like the professor and Mary Ann,” said Gary Kroeger, an “SNL” cast member in the ’80s, likening his role in an Iowa congressional race to that of the most minor characters on the TV show “Gilligan’s Island.” He is trying to unseat a Republican incumbent, Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa). “Realistically, I’m a long shot.”
Kroeger said he has gotten money from Internet donation pages, set up to attract Sanders’s famous small-dollar donors. But, he said, the dollars are way too small.
“They’re Sanders supporters. So I will open up my [Web browser] and see 100 new supporters,” he said. “At $1.20 apiece.”
On one hand, this wave of pro-Sanders candidates illustrates the powerful reach of Sanders’s rhetoric against Wall Street, income inequality and big money in politics. These candidates were not recruited. They were inspired.
But, at the same time, the struggles of these candidates show how much Sanders must do to catch up with his promise of a “revolution” that remakes American politics in general.
Revolutions must be organized, after all.
And the Bernie-crats are decidedly not.
“It’s not going to change Congress at the same time. It’s going to change Congress the next time,” said Howie Klein, a former music executive who is the treasurer for a political action committee, Blue America PAC, that supports Sanders. “Or the time after that.”
Klein is one of the Bernie-crats’ best allies. He set up a “Bernie Congress” Internet page to raise donations for 16 pro-Sanders office-seekers. But it has raised less than $40,000 so far. “That’s a pitiful amount,” Klein said.
And as he ran down that list of those candidates, even Klein did not sound very optimistic.
“He’ll have no chance at all. . . . She doesn’t have a 20 percent chance. . . . I don’t think he’s got a real shot. . . . I mean, these guys all think that they’re going to win. I don’t think he’s got a real shot either,” Klein said, going over four of the people he was raising money for. In another case, Klein lamented that the pro-Sanders candidate would probably lose to a long-serving Republican incumbent.
“Maybe he’ll die,” Klein said of the Republican.
Sanders’s presidential campaign did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.
It is clear, however, that if he becomes President Sanders, he will need a lot of help on Capitol Hill.
For instance, Sanders’s most recent bill to provide universal, government-run health insurance — a signature of his campaign — attracted zero co-sponsors in the Senate in 2013. Another campaign promise, making tuition free at public colleges, also attracted no co-sponsors.
Another measurement: In the presidential race, Sanders has been endorsed by just three members of the House, Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) — the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — and Rep. Peter Welch, a fellow Vermonter. And by none of his colleagues in the Senate.
“We have to make Congress respond to the needs of the people, not big money,” Sanders said in a January debate. Sanders says his supporters could apply pressure on Congress from the outside, camping out on the Mall to demand changes. But, to get his biggest ideas through, he will need to change the legislators on the inside, too.
But for now, groups allied with Sanders said, re-shaping Congress must be a challenge for another time.
“They need to stay focused on their goal, which is to make sure that Bernie Sanders can beat Hillary Clinton and then beat Donald Trump,” said Charles Chamberlain of Democracy for America, a Vermont-based activist group that is supporting Sanders.
He said it would be great if liberals could ride Sanders’s coattails into Congress. But it is not Sanders’s job to get them there. “I don’t think he can go and buy them coats,” Chamberlain said.
He said his organization intends to endorse three pro-Sanders House candidates, who stand out from the other Bernie-crats for two reasons: They have run in big races before, and this year they are running in districts where a Democrat might win.
The three are Lucy Flores, a former state legislator running against a Republican freshman in Nevada; Pramila Jayapal, a state senator running for an open seat in Washington state; and Zephyr Teachout, a law professor and activist running for an open seat in New York.
The other Bernie-crat with a decent chance seems to be John Fetterman — the tattooed, 6-foot-8 mayor of a former steel town in Pennsylvania, who is running for the Senate in a crowded Democratic primary.
Fetterman seems to be an unusual case because he actually received significant help from Sanders’s own campaign apparatus.
“They tweeted our endorsement. We met several times with their state apparatus. They were instrumental in helping us with their petition drive, which was very successful. Really, they just said, ‘Hey, we’re doing Bernie’s petition drive — we want to circulate yours, too.’ We’ve co-mingled at events and are integrating closely and tightly,” said Fetterman, who is the mayor of Braddock, Pa.
How much help? It is hard to say exactly. A spokeswoman for Fetterman declined to say if Sanders’s campaign had provided fundraising help or shared vital lists of donors or voters in Pennsylvania.
For most of the other Bernie-crats, there has been much less assistance.
In all, The Washington Post spoke to 23 candidates running as allies of Sanders. A few had gotten some marginal assistance from the Sanders campaign itself. Three candidates from key early voting states got to appear onstage at Sanders’s rallies. Flores was in a Sanders TV ad in Nevada.
The rest said they had no meaningful help from the campaign. Either they had not figured out how to ask for it, or they had asked and not received.
“It would be wonderful. I would be overjoyed if he said, ‘Everybody that loves me, go find your candidate!’ Because there’s a lot of us,” said Kerith Strano Taylor, a lawyer in Pennsylvania who is running against a four-term Republican incumbent. She was imagining what Sanders could do with just a few words — if he encouraged audiences at his rallies to look up their local pro-Sanders candidate.
But she has not asked directly for help, figuring Sanders could not give it until later. “When we get through the primary, we’ll see who’s still standing,” she said.
None of the 23 said they had been recruited to run by Sanders or his campaign.
“I’ve had no contact with Bernie Sanders at all. And I don’t even know if he’s aware of my candidacy,” said Tim Canova, a law professor in South Florida. But, Canova said, Sanders helped inspire him to run against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who chairs the Democratic National Committee.
To help a Democratic president, he needed to run against a Democrat?
“Should he get elected, he needs to have a Congress he can work with,” Canova said. He said Wasserman Schultz was too close to big money and the party’s establishment.
Canova is facing an uphill race, but he is working with what he has: a minor level of local celebrity. Around Miami Beach, he is known as “The Hurdler” for his habit of jumping over all 572 garbage cans on his regular running route.
Because most Bernie-crats are making this up as they go, they all have different views of how big a role Sanders should play in their campaigns.
Some want to run their own race and mention Sanders only when voters ask about him.
One has Sanders tattooed on his arm.
“ ‘I’m Dimitri Cherny. I’m running for Congress to replace Mark Sanford, and I bet I’m a more committed Bernie supporter than you are!’ ” said Cherny, a former long-haul truck driver and political novice who’s running against the Republican congressman in South Carolina. Cherny was recounting the spiel he gives to pro-Sanders audiences. “And then I show them the tattoo.”
Cherny got the tattoo a week ago, depicting Sanders’s famous hair-and-glasses silhouette on his forearm. His first tattoo ever. The crowds love it, he said.
In other races, pro-Sanders candidates have run into problems with the Sanders campaign itself. These candidates have tried to emulate Sanders — rebelling against the establishment — only to find that it is possible to rebel too much.
It did not go well. Piddock said the Sanders campaign let her go for running as a Green candidate. Then, she said, the Green Party shunned her for supporting Sanders.
Now, Piddock is running as an independent.
But she still has not lost the faith.
“I’m David and Goliath. I’m Hillary and Bernie,” she said, when asked what her chances were. “I’ve got about the same chance that Bernie has. But he’s doing it.”
David Weigel contributed to this report.