Progressives’ Challenge: Keeping Sanders’s Fire ‘Berning’ After Primary

Since Bernie Sanders launched his seemingly implausible presidential run a year ago today, he has inspired millions of Americans to “feel the Bern”—with many voting or donating or volunteering for a campaign for the first time. But with the Sanders campaign likely to come to an end in a matter of weeks, progressive groups aligned with the 74-year-old Vermont socialist are now working to keep the fire smoldering under his grassroots followers.

The senator has vowed to stay in the race until the convention, even though Democratic rival Hillary Clinton’s lead of 272 pledged delegates all but guarantees her the nomination after the June 7 primaries, and she’s already largely pivoted to a general election matchup with Donald Trump.

Sanders, however, is now helping progressive organizations like MoveOn.org and Democracy for America (DFA), founded as an offshoot of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s unsuccessful 2004 presidential run, steer his supporters' attention to a number of congressional and state-level candidates around the country that are campaigning on many of the same platforms the Vermont senator has—getting big money out of politics, curbing Wall Street and other big business interests, fighting climate change and opposing free trade. The risk, as always when moving from presidential matchups to more granular politics and policy, is that the variety of causes and candidates will water down the movement, while failing to capture the same zeal that a media-saturated national campaign can.

Already, the progressive wing of the party has lost one high-profile fight: In April, liberal Representative Donna Edwards went down against Democrat establishment favorite Chris Van Hollen in a heated primary race for Maryland’s open Senate seat, despite the backing of major national progressive groups and a campaign that sounded very much like Sanders's (though Edwards did endorse Clinton for president). Liberal groups, however, point to another primary they think is a better measure of their movement’s ascendance. Whereas the Edwards–Van Hollen race got wrapped up in race and gender, progressive Maryland Senate Whip Jamie Raskin won in a crowded Democratic primary for the state’s 8th Congressional District seat where money in politics was a central focus of the race.

And progressive groups remain bullish about how much Sanders has helped advance their agendas through his Democratic primary run, which vastly outperformed initial expectations. Charles Chamberlain, executive director of DFA, says that through the Sanders campaign, “the political revolution has been able to define what it stands for—big causes like fighting against climate change, fighting against income inequality.”

“It makes it possible for us to connect the dots between issues and candidates around the country,” he says. As in, getting progressives in one part of the U.S. to donate to those in another because they’re championing the same cause.

526_Sanders Movement Fans reach out to Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Cathedral City, California, on May 25. Progressives are working to keep those Sanders supporters engaged even after the Democratic primary ends. Alex Gallardo/REUTERS

For example, Chamberlain notes that over the past weekend, DFA members hosted 187 house parties around the country to screen a documentary about and raise money for Michael Tubbs, a young Stanford University graduate and city council member who is now running for mayor in his beleaguered hometown of Stockton, California. Progressives in Miami, Chamberlain says, came out to watch a movie about a mayor’s race in California’s Central Valley.

DFA and another national liberal group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, have each have named slates of congressional and local candidates, like Tubbs, to whom they’re helping steer funds. The PCCC, for example, has brought in tens of thousands of dollars from its members for its congressional endorsees. Now Sanders has begun stepping into those races as well, endorsing a handful of those House and Senate candidates in recent weeks and urging his supporters, via email, to donate to their campaigns. Sanders, the PCCC emphasized in subsequent outreach to its members, has said Nevada congressional candidate Lucy Flores “is exactly the kind of person I'm going to need in Congress." PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor says Flores has now raised more than $400,000 in grassroots donations (after raising just over $200,000 in all of 2015), which Taylor says could be a game-changer in her crowded Democratic primary race. Another Sanders endorsee, Florida congressional candidate Tim Canova, who is challenging Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, says he raised $225,000 from Sanders supporters after the campaign sent an email about his race last week.

On Tuesday, Sanders announced he’s also backing eight state legislative candidates running in states as varied as South Dakota, California and Vermont. South Carolina state Representative Justin Bamberg, who made news when he switched his endorsement from Clinton to Sanders in January, is also on that list. Bamberg says he hasn’t had a chance to check how his re-election fundraising has been impacted but says the attention is as important as the money.

Since Bamberg threw his support behind the Vermont senator, Sanders supporters have called to ask how they could support him in South Carolina, offering to come down to the state and canvass for him. “It’s good to see that support trickling down,” says Bamberg.

Other left-leaning groups, including major labor unions, are trying to feed off the Sanders energy to fuel issue-based campaigns. “I think you’re going to see a number...of movements that sort of split off from this that are going to take on specific issues,” predicts Chamberlain, pointing specifically to climate change. One of the five people Sanders got to name to the Democrats’ platform writing committee at the national convention, he notes, is prominent environmentalist Bill McKibben.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren—who has stayed out of the Democratic presidential primary—and Minnesota Representative Keith Ellison, a prominent Sanders supporter, spoke at the launch of new coalition called, quite bluntly, “Take on Wall Street.” The group, backed by labor unions like the AFL-CIO and American Federation of Teachers, as well as progressive groups like MoveOn.org, hopes to organize grassroots support behind a list of policy goals. These include ending the carried interest loophole that allows investments to be taxed at lower rates than income; reinstituting provisions of the banking regulation Glass-Steagall, which people such as Warren and Sanders have blamed for the financial crisis; and raising taxes on other financial industry activities.

“We need a resurgence of activism,” Ellison said. “And we need to be talking to our neighbors and telling our friends that this is our democracy, this is our air, these are our jobs, this is our country, they’re our airwaves—and the people that are trying to profit from them are going to act like they are ours.”

As fellow politicians have learned, however, one-off donations during campaign season are one thing and transferring enthusiasm from an iconic campaign to sustained fights over regulatory minutiae or state house seats is another. The Obama administration had high hopes for Organizing for America, the advocacy group it constructed out of its groundbreaking 2008 presidential campaign. But aside from some grassroots activism around health care reform, the group failed to recapture the energy that poured into electing the first black president for issues like Wall Street reform and appointment fights.

University of Michigan professor Michael Heaney attributes that to a sense, after the 2008 election, “that we don’t really need to mobilize if we’ve won the highest office.” That’s not likely to be the case for Sanders supporters. The bigger question for them is “are they the kind of people who are going to be willing to engage in Democratic politics. And when I say Democrat, I mean Democrat with a capital D,” says Heaney, who studies social movements and their impact in U.S. politics.

Heaney underscores that working within the party apparatus is central to cementing Sanders’s long-term influence. But it’s also something that the senator, who has identified as an independent over his 25-year congressional career, and his many independent supporters have not always embraced.

“If the Sanders supporters want to engage the party, and they’re willing to show up and write checks, then they can have an influence,” says Heaney. “The question is whether they’re willing to do that.”