Hillary Clinton has been the Democrats’ ace in the hole, the star attraction at rallies in liberal New York and conservative Kentucky. Elizabeth Warren has been barnstorming for fellow progressives, hoping to increase the numbers of the so-called Warren wing of the Senate. Martin O’Malley, the eager Maryland governor, has made appearances at seemingly every housewarming party for every county council candidate from New Hampshire to Nevada.
But what about Bernie Sanders? The socialist senator from Vermont has been perhaps more explicit about his 2016 ambitions than any of the aforementioned contenders, telling The Nation magazine in the spring that “I am prepared to run for president of the United States” and telling The Daily Beast this summer that “I am giving serious thought to it.”
But Sanders is no great demand in the swing states, and he hasn’t been collecting chits in the early primary states. Indeed, a review of his campaign schedule reveals a highly unorthodox approach in the pre-primary presidential process.
There was a fundraiser for Keith Ellison, the Minnesota congressman who is one of the most consistently liberal members of the House and who routinely wins election by 50 points or more (and who faces only token opposition this year). Sanders also fundraised and campaigned for Gloria Bromell Tinubu, a former member of the Georgia state legislature who is making her second run for Congress in deeply conservative South Carolina after losing in 2012 to Rep. Tim Rice by 14 points.
In tiny Richmond, California, Sanders has gotten involved in the battle for control of the city council, a campaign that has received little mainstream media attention but has become a touchstone in progressive circles. There, lawmakers are engaged in a fight with Chevron over the oil giant’s plans to upgrade a local refinery and a group of local progressives has been trying to keep the city council under their control against a slate of business-backed candidates.
More than 500 people attended a rally that Sanders headlined in Richmond. He is the only national political figure to get involved.
“He helped bring national attention to it,” said Mike Parker, one of the leaders of the Richmond Progressive Alliance. “He was the first U.S. senator to have spoken in Richmond in my memory. Most people outside of the Bay Area don’t even know that Richmond exists. It really energized people here. We are up against a really tough operation that is sitting on millions of dollars. He helped give people the sense that we could do something just by pulling so many people together.”
Asked why no other national political figures have followed Sanders into the breach, Parker replied, “He has got more guts than they do, and he is independent of the big corporations.”
If Sanders has not been campaigning for some of the big-ticket senators and governors this cycle, it is because he has been hitting the hustings in a manner that resembles more what his eventual (possible) presidential campaign would look like—outside the system, and relying on labor unions and community groups.
He has, for example, twice held rallies and town halls for the South Carolina Progressive Network, an umbrella group of grassroots organizations that tries to move the Palmetto State’s politics leftward. He keynoted the Fighting Bobfest, an annual gathering in central Wisconsin dedicated to the memory of the early-20th-century Senator Robert La Follette. And even if candidates haven’t embraced having Sanders on stage with them, he has made the rounds to local Democratic parties, hosting a fundraiser for the Hillsborough County Democratic Committee in New Hampshire (the first primary’s state Democratic senator, Jeanne Shaheen, was a no-show) and keynoting the Clinton County Democratic Hall of Fame Dinner in Goose Lake, Iowa. He has hosted town halls at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall in Jackson, Mississippi, and fundraisers at the AFSCME headquarters in Philadelphia and a longshoreman’s hall in Charleston, South Carolina.
In an interview with Esquire magazine, Sanders explained that this approach was consistent with his belief that the two major political parties have failed to reach out to most voters.
“Yesterday in the evening, in Raleigh, North Carolina, we spoke to over 300 people, working people, from the AFL-CIO and other groups,” he said. “Do I think those people are satisfied with what’s going on in this country? Do I think that they want real change? I think they do. In Columbia, South Carolina, we had 200 people out. We had seniors, blacks, whites—a real coalition of people—and we had a lot of them in Mississippi for the AFL-CIO.
“The bottom line is I think the Beltway mentality underestimates the frustration and the anger that people are feeling in this country with both the economic and the political status quo.”
And if candidates on the ballot this year are reluctant to campaign alongside Sanders, they are not shy about taking his money.
The Vermont senator has given out more than $200,000 through his two PACs, Friends of Bernie and Progressive Voters of America. The PVA, in turn, has donated tens of thousands of dollars to embattled red-state Democrats like Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.