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The "political revolution" will be even harder to bring to Congress than the White House

Carrying Bernie Sanders signs is not enough to get you elected to Congress.
Carrying Bernie Sanders signs is not enough to get you elected to Congress.
David McNew/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders's surprising success in the presidential primary may make it easy to think a huge number of Democrats are itching to throw their party's leaders out of office and replace them with insurgent outsiders.

But in the party's state and congressional primaries, incumbents and establishment frontrunners just keep winning.

As I've written, Sanders's success has inspired dozens of outsider, long-shot candidates to run primaries that mirror the Vermont senator's distinctive vision for the Democratic Party. And while Sanders has generally stayed out of these races, the candidates have closely identified themselves with him, hoping his popularity could vault them into Congress.

sanders Joshua Lott/Getty Images

But these candidates got little good news in Tuesday's primaries — in California, New Jersey, and Iowa, enthusiastic Sanders fans in various races lost big.

Now, we shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these defeats. After all, these candidates were little-known, little-funded, and always massive underdogs. And the Sanders movement itself remains focused on the presidential race for the time being.

Yet the results do underscore just how hard it will be for Sanders allies hoping to reshape the legislative branch, like the Brand New Congress PAC, to actually succeed. When it comes to their own local officials, rank-and-file Democrats don't seem eager to launch a "political revolution" — at least not yet.

What looks like a bad night for the promise of a "Bernie Congress"

Figuring out exactly who is running under the Sanders banner is a bit of an inexact science — many politicians, of course, embrace some parts of Sanders's message but not others.

Moreover, many of the campaigns that tried to tie themselves to Sanders were launched by long-shot challengers who faced low name recognition and little access to campaign cash.

None of the races last night were ones where Sanders himself had an active role in endorsing a candidate, and the Brand New Congress is itself a new organization still trying to get off the ground. We'll get a better sense of Sanders's down-ballot reach in more high-profile races later this year — in Tim Canova's primary bid against Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz in southern Florida, for instance.

Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton.
Several congressional candidates who endorsed Hillary Clinton easily fended off challenges from insurgents who backed Bernie Sanders.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Still, the results from last night hinted that it will take more than calling for a "political revolution" to replicate Sanders's movement in local elections across the country. Here's a rundown of several congressional candidates who tried tying themselves to Sanders:

  • Alex Law, a 25-year-old trying to unseat Rep. Donald Norcross in New Jersey's First Congressional District, endorsed Sanders and ran a campaign that mimicked his message, according to Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and a New Jersey political expert. But Norcross crushed Law on Tuesday night, winning more than 70 percent of the vote in the district, according to NJ.com. The race was never close, according to Murray.
  • Two women who endorsed Clinton, California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris and Rep. Loretta Sanchez, finished first and second in California's US Senate primary. (Because of the state's unusual primary rules, the two Democrats will now square off against each other as the sole candidates in the general election.) Meanwhile, "Berniecrat" Steve Stokes, the only candidate in the race to endorse Sanders, finished with less than 1 percent of the vote.
  • In Iowa's Democratic primary for US Senate, attorney Tom Fiegen embraced Sanders as tightly as possible. "Fiegen wants to be Iowa's Bernie Sanders," wrote the Des Moines Register. "His embrace of Sanders’ presidential campaign and message has been near-total." Yet Fiegen was steamrolled by former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, ending up with only about 7 percent of the vote.
  • Sanders supporter Bao Nguyen, 35, badly lost an outsider bid to replace retiring Rep. Loretta Sanchez in California's 46th Congressional District. Nguyen was the only candidate in the race to endorse Sanders, and strongly criticized establishment politics throughout the race, according to the OC Register. But local politics mainstay and former state Sen. Lou Correa cruised to an easy victory.
  • Insurgents tying themselves to Sanders also failed to break through in California's 20th District and in California's 24th District. In the 20th, local prosecutor Jimmy Panetta — who was endorsed by Hillary Clinton at a rally in May — easily fended off the candidacies of Jack Digby and Joe Williams, who both tried to hitch their wagon to Sanders, according to the Monterey County Weekly. Similarly, in the 24th, Clinton backer and Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal beat back a challenge from Bill Ostrander, who touted his support for Sanders. Ostrander finished with around 6 percent of the vote.

What this suggests about Sanders's down-ballot movement

From a purely theoretical perspective, the idea of a Bernie Congress makes sense: Sanders ran up some massive margins over Hillary Clinton in congressional districts across the country — often in districts whose representatives endorsed Clinton.

Given that fact, couldn't some substantial number of democratic socialists get elected to Congress on his basic platform — or at least create a sort of "Tea Party of the left" that could give some incumbents serious scares?

The problem with this seemingly simple equation, according to political scientists, is that rank-and-file Democrats just don't appear to be that upset about their party's top officials — especially at the local level.

"If we see that start to change, maybe you see some movement designed to push the party to the left," said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "But right now Democrats are generally more supportive of their party's leadership than Republicans are."

Of course, Sanders has only been part of the national political consciousness for about a year, and many of Sanders's down-ballot allies are brand new to politics. But if last night's results showed anything, it's that it's going to take much more than embracing Sanders's message to transform Congress.

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