When a political neophyte runs in a House primary against the party’s previous nominee and 2014 lieutenant governor nominee, it can be hard to break through.
But introducing Bernie Sanders to hundreds of potential voters does provide an opening.
That’s the kind of upgrade former Saturday Night Live cast member Gary Kroeger has received in Iowa’s 1st District since he publicly endorsed the senator from Vermont and self-proclaimed Democratic socialist for president in October.
“The crowd that comes to see Senator Sanders I know is a friendly crowd to me,” Kroeger said. “I’d thought I’d be in the back of a Chuck E. Cheese in a room of a few activists and that’s the most you’d get out of a primary.”
Instead, Kroeger has opened for Sanders at four events, each with hundreds in attendance, including the Sanders campaign rally before the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner and a “Rockin’ the Bern” concert in Iowa City.
He’s not alone. A handful of congressional candidates have thrown their support behind Sanders and found their campaigns buoyed by small donations, volunteers, and social-media buzz.
And Kroeger is part of an even smaller group of Democratic hopefuls running in competitive districts in early-primary states who hope to take advantage of Sanders’s ground game and frequent campaign stops in their districts.
In some ways, Sanders’s underdog fight to overtake the establishment front-runner, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is a narrative that could also frame these local races in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, where the candidates trail opponents in money, political experience, or name recognition.
In New Hampshire, businessman Shawn O’Connor endorsed and went on a two-day, five-stop tour with Sanders in early January. In Nevada, former state Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, who garnered national attention after backing Sanders last month in a Facebook post, has since appeared at events hosted by the Sanders campaign, including a roundtable, an office opening and a mock caucus event.
“Campaigning with a presidential candidate—it’s a pretty smart move. You get access to thousands of people,” said John Rowley, a veteran Democratic media consultant. “That becomes exposure and essentially free communication with voters, and I can definitely see that that could have an impact. I don’t think it’s a game changer, but it’s probably worth a few points.”
With Sanders leading in New Hampshire and gaining on Clinton leading up to Monday’s caucuses in Iowa, candidates benefit from his increased momentum.
O’Connor described an uptick of 10- to 20 percent in both donations and volunteers since he endorsed Sanders on Jan. 3. Kroeger said he received a “palpable bump” in donations and gathered a list of volunteers he’d met at Sanders rallies who are ready to be deployed. One volunteer he met at a rally in Des Moines offered to oversee his social media, using the Sanders grassroots network to grow his Twitter followers to 1,500.
Since endorsing Sanders, Flores has done a series of events organized by the Sanders campaign in Nevada, and as the caucuses approach, she said, she will likely campaign with Sanders himself. The endorsement also gave Flores a boost in donations and volunteers.
“Whenever I can try to hit two birds with one stone,” she said, “if it’s an event in my district and it happens to also be a Bernie event, we’ll try to combine those where possible. … It’s definitely just made my days a little — maybe a lot — busier.”
Sanders’s grassroots network is eager to lend support to like-minded congressional candidates who would support the progressive agenda of a President Sanders.
An ActBlue fundraising page has gathered just over $14,000 in donations to split between House and Senate candidates who have endorsed Sanders, urging supporters to “thank progressive incumbents and candidates with the courage to endorse him.”
“People are excited about the wonderful momentum that he’s getting, but they’re realizing that he’s going to need allies in the Congress,” O’Connor said of Sanders. “I think the country is looking for a new generation of leadership.”
The candidates insist there was no political calculus in the decision to endorse—though some sent out fundraising appeals playing up their support of Sanders.
All three self-identify as progressives and align with Sanders’s positions on college affordability, education, or income equality. They describe the endorsements as a way to define their campaigns.
Kroeger acknowledges that he is a “distant third” in his primary race against Cedar Rapids City Councilwoman Monica Vernon and former state Rep. Pat Murphy. Murphy won the five-way primary battle for the 1st District in 2014. Vernon was the running mate for state Sen. Jack Hatch in that year’s gubernatorial race.
O’Connor, who describes himself as “antiestablishment” and “anti-Washington,” has largely self-funded against former three-term Rep. Carol Shea-Porter. By the end of the third quarter, O’Connor had loaned his campaign $1 million. Shea-Porter has endorsed Clinton.
There are better-positioned candidates who have endorsed Sanders. In New York’s 19th district, 2014 gubernatorial candidate Zephyr Teachout backed Sanders in December, before launching her bid last week for the seat of retiring Republican Rep. Chris Gibson. Plus, Reps. Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona are on Team Sanders, though neither faces a competitive reelection.
Endorsing Sanders could help Flores the most, allowing her to distinguish herself in the four-way primary to challenge Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy. She’s put up the lowest fundraising numbers so far compared to her competitors, including state Sen. Ruben Kihuen.
But Nevada-based Democratic political consultant Billy Vassiliadis said he doesn’t think the needle will be moved by the endorsement, which he sees as a tactic to cut into Kihuen’s base of younger voters.
“I think Lucy made a very calculated and somewhat desperate decision, in that she’s not breaking through anywhere,” he said. “I think Bernie is a unique phenomenon. I don’t think he’s got coattails.”
Flores denies any political motive to the endorsement and said she considered it risky. Sanders does not lead Clinton in many polls in later primary states or nationally.
Sanders endorsements could potentially alienate supporters of Clinton, who remains favored for the nomination. Plus, down-ballot primaries often take place months after early presidential primaries, and it can be hard to draw out the momentum.
While Sanders is polling strongly in next week’s New Hampshire primary, the state’s congressional primaries won’t take place until mid-September—two months after the national conventions—potentially minimizing the effect of O’Connor’s presence at Sanders events in January.
And aligning himself with Sanders can’t make up for his lack of name recognition compared to Shea-Porter, said former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand, a Democratic consultant.
“If you’re somebody like O’Connor who is an unknown person in a congressional race,” Marchand said, “they don’t know who he is and they don’t know who he endorsed. And by the time they would start thinking about it, it’s just so far in the rearview mirror.”