Even while endorsing Hillary Clinton and ending his campaign, Bernie Sanders vowed his political revolution would go on to "transform America" and fundamentally change its government.
The path forward was obvious but narrow: Defeated in the presidential race, Sanders and his allies would have to try building their clout in Congress and at the state and local level, creating electoral counter-weight within the Democratic Party that was more closely aligned with Sanders’s priorities.
It’s only been a couple months, but that effort is off to a rocky start. Not only have Sanders-backed candidates generally struggled to knock off opponents backed by the Democratic establishment, but the national organizations created to help them have already become mired in petty infighting and legal difficulties.
Sanders’s defenders will note that the Vermont senator just waged a brutally long primary campaign, and that it’s impossible to change the country overnight. That’s true. But with the clock ticking toward November, it’s very hard to see a lot of evidence of the much vaunted "next stage of the political revolution" kicking into high gear anytime soon.
Why Sanders’s post-presidential revolution looks off to a rocky start
As his campaign faded in late June, Sanders went online to directly address his supporters on the critical battles ahead.
"We need to start engaging at the local and state level in an unprecedented way. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers helped us make political history during the last year," Sanders said. "Now we need many of them to start running for school boards, city councils, county commissions, state legislatures, and governorships. State and local governments make enormously important decisions and we cannot allow right-wing Republicans to increasingly control them."
That is not happening, at least not yet.
Among the most troubling signs for Sanders’s down-ballot revolution:
- Earlier this week, Sanders’s allies launched "Our Revolution" — a new group aiming to "support the next generation of progressive leaders" — to immediate controversy and infighting.
Eight of the organization’s 13 staffers have already resigned in protest, apparently upset that longtime (and controversial) Sanders aide Jeff Weaver was brought in to help oversee the new organization. (Politico has the full account here.)
"Our Revolution" has also been sharply criticized for being a political entity set up as a 501(c)(4) — meaning it won’t have to disclose its donors. That’s a strange choice given Sanders’s furious denunciations of dark money in politics, as the Atlantic’s Clare Foran notes.
- For now, really only three Sanders-backed insurgent congressional candidates — Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal, New York’s Zephyr Teachout, and Florida’s Tim Canova — remain viable in their races.
Jayapal is probably going to win. But Teachout is in a competitive race regarded as a toss-up (and had a political career preceding Sanders’s revolution in any case), and Canova looks like a long-shot against former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.
That’s not exactly a populist uprising to transform the House of Representatives.
- Even among these candidates, the most prominent — Canova — has turned increasingly critical of Sanders.
Sanders directed his supporters to donate to Canova’s campaign, and that clearly helped. But Canova has now begun suggesting to the press that Sanders hung him out to dry, openly questioning why Sanders isn’t campaigning with him in Florida.
The Atlantic asked Canova if Sanders had helped or hurt his underdog candidacy, and his response shouldn’t be encouraging to Bernie loyalists. "Honestly, don’t know," Canova said. "I would have said it helped a lot more than it hurt, [but] in the final week or two, I don’t know."
- A few dozen lesser-known Sanders-inspired insurgents tried running locally by campaigning under the banner of "political revolution" and denouncing those who endorsed Hillary Clinton. These efforts were almost uniformly crushed.
Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, notes that it’s possible these down-ballot efforts will get more people involved at even lower levels of government — and that they will then be better positioned to run for higher office in a few years.
But, he says, "I don’t see much evidence of it right now. It was always going to be difficult to maintain that energy from this primary, and I don’t see it happening."
It’s really hard to keep people interested in congressional and local races
Back at the height of the excitement around the presidential primary, it was easy to imagine that candidates inspired by Sanders could sweep state and local races throughout the country.
Sanders, after all, won 23 primaries, over 13 million votes, and House districts all over — sometimes by huge margins. Why couldn’t that success simply be replicated by using different vessels to reiterate the same message that worked for him so well?
The reality, however, is that most voters simply don’t pay much attention to down-ballot races, especially when there’s also still a high-stakes presidential race. Just 53 percent of Americans can even identify which party their member of Congress belongs to, for instance. And when there isn’t a presidential election, voter turnout drops by around 33 percent.
This is the lens through which we should understand all of the recent headlines about the struggles of Sanders’s down-ballot revolution.
"It was always going to be difficult to maintain that energy from this primary," Skelley says. "With Sanders not in the picture, and everyone is paying attention the presidential race, all of this down-ballot stuff just gets lost."