Early-State House Hopefuls Feel the Bern

Underdog congressional candidates in early presidential nominating states are getting a boost from their endorsements of Bernie Sanders.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stands with his wife, Jane, and waves to the crowd during a campaign rally at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa on Sunday.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
Ally Mutnick
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Ally Mutnick
Feb. 1, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

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.”

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