Democrats Hope Sanders Helps in Battle for Senate

Party leaders believe the vanquished White House candidate—and his supporters—can be deployed in key races.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
June 21, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

Senate Democrats want Bernie Sanders to deploy his grassroots army against a new target: Republican control of the upper chamber.

Now that Sanders has returned to the Senate after a spirited but unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination, key lawmakers, including members of the Democratic leadership, hope he will vigorously throw his newfound weight around in tight races that will decide party control in November.

“Bernie can be a determinative force in many races, and I hope he will help us beat Trump and elect a Democratic Senate,” said Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, the minority whip.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Tester said he has spoken briefly with Sanders but has not yet had an in-depth discussion about his potential role.

“Basically what I want to do is just try to figure out how we can get his base fired up for our candidates,” Tester told National Journal.

Tester said Sanders can be an important factor in states “across the board” and that while Sanders may have limited time to campaign personally, he could also be helpful through fundraising, emails, videos, and other potential steps.

“I think he can play a big role, both in helping us get his supporters to support our candidates and I think he can play a role in helping us get enough resources available to help these candidates,” Tester said.

While Sanders’s insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton fell short, his energetic base and the millions of votes he earned mean that he could help Democrats this fall.

The political map is friendly to Democrats because a slew of Republicans in states that President Obama won in 2012—such as Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire (a state where Sanders won the primary handily), Rob Portman of Ohio, and Mark Kirk of Illinois—face reelection.

In addition, Democrats are seeking to knock off GOP incumbents in more conservative states such as Missouri and Iowa.

Thus far, Sanders has endorsed several House hopefuls but just one Senate candidate: former Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, a progressive who was swept aside by the GOP wave of 2010.

Sanders won Wisconsin’s primary in early April, and in late May sent an email to his national fundraising list urging support for Feingold.

Sanders campaign spokeswoman Symone Sanders (no relation) said Sanders will likely get involved in other races, but has not announced any plans yet. “He will be a force in the general election for Democratic candidates up and down the ticket,” she said.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, the only Senate Democrat to endorse Sanders, said he believed Sanders would do “all he can to turn the Senate blue.”

Certainly Sanders stands to benefit if Democrats, who now hold 46 seats, gain enough ground to take control.

Next year Sanders would be chairman of the Budget Committee or the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and both would be good perches for high-profile work on economic-justice issues that were central to his presidential campaign. He could, in fact, end up negotiating a spending blueprint or health-reform package with Clinton—assuming she wins in November.

But how much Sanders can do, and where, is an open question.

To be sure, he’s a hugely important force in Democratic politics, having amassed 12 million votes in the primaries, besting Clinton among young voters and independents en route to winning 22 states, and drawing massive numbers of small donations.

Yet endorsements can bring a candidate only so far.

In Pennsylvania, the prominent pollster and analyst G. Terry Madonna said in an email that Sanders’s endorsement of Katie McGinty, the Democrat challenging Sen. Pat Toomey, would “be of some help but no game changer.

“[McGinty] is going to need help in delivering the millennials and blue collar workers. It certainly would not hurt to have his support, but not transformative,” Madonna said.

“She might benefit more from the straight party voting that has been on the rise as you know, if Clinton can win the state decisively. He might be of some help with his grassroots fundraising, if it could be made transferable from his base to her,” he said.

In New Hampshire, one of the top pickup targets for Democrats, one expert said Sanders could boost Gov. Maggie Hassan in her bid against Ayotte.

“Sanders could be indirectly helpful to Hassan if he can boost turnout among young people and infrequently-voting independents who turned out for him in the New Hampshire primary,” said professor Dante Scala, an expert in Granite State politics at the University of New Hampshire. “If these voters turn out for Clinton, they might also cast a vote for Hassan.”

The scope of Sanders’s work in Senate races will also likely depend on how much candidates running in swing states believe that backing from the self-described democratic socialist will help them.

Campaign aides for Hassan and McGinty did not respond to requests for comment. Sam Roecker, the campaign manager for Iowa Democrat Patty Judge, did not say directly whether Judge would seek Sanders’ backing in her race against longtime incumbent Chuck Grassley.

“We are definitely open to all avenues for reaching out to voters,” Roecker said. But a spokesman for Ted Strickland, the former Democratic governor of Ohio who is challenging incumbent Republican Rob Portman, said the campaign would welcome Sanders’ backing.

“Senator Sanders has run a great race and his message of fighting for working people has resonated with Ohioans — we would be happy to have his support,” said Strickland spokesman David Bergstein.

Sanders’s campaign is in something of a limbo state these days. He’s still in the race, but now focused on influencing the Democratic platform and party rules, and no longer trying to wrest the nomination from Clinton. He’s also vowing to do everything he can to beat Donald Trump. But as the fall elections draw closer, his colleagues believe that goal will become broader.

“I think Bernie will be full-throated and all-in to help Democratic Senate candidates, progressive Democratic Senate candidates, and help Hillary Clinton,” said Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio.

Sanders, of course, can’t force his backers to come out for Clinton and Senate candidates who will often be to their right politically. But Brown said he thinks Sanders can influence lots of voters.

“I think his supporters will listen to him,” Brown said in the Capitol. “He won’t get 99 percent of them, but he’ll get a huge part of them.”

Correction: The original version of this story gave the wrong title for Russ Feingold. He is a former senator.

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