Politics & Policy

Sanders Superdelegates Unnerved by Nevada Convention Chaos

Sanders campaigns in Nevada in February. (Jim Young/Reuters)
Concerns about party unity are on the increase.

In the wake of Bernie Sanders’s latest dustup with the Democratic establishment, some of his supporters are blanching.

“He talks about a revolution, but he needs to maybe define that in ways of civility, you know?” says Pete Gertonson, a Sanders superdelegate from Idaho. “He needs to get a grip on things and show us that he’s a leader. Is he gonna be the leader of an angry mob that he can’t control, or is he going to be the leader of something that will grow?”

After last weekend’s violent Nevada state Democratic convention – where Bernie Sanders supporters shouted down speakers, threw chairs, and made death threats against the state party chairwoman for her supposed proHillary Clinton bias – national party leaders widely expected the Vermont senator to condemn such behavior.

The Sanders campaign instead issued a scorched-earth statement after the convention’s close, blasting Democratic leadership in Nevada and across the nation while offering just a single line condemning “any and all forms of violence.” The senator also dodged a question from an NBC reporter, abruptly ending an interview when asked if he had a response to the violent behavior displayed by his supporters.

Sanders’s defiance hit a nerve, uniting leaders across the Democratic establishment in their condemnation of his response. “I thought he was going to do something different,” Senate minority leader Harry Reid said later on Tuesday. “Bernie should say something and not have some silly statement. Bernie is better than that.” DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said it “added more fuel to the fire.” Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein worried that the party could face the same kind of paralyzing unrest it experienced during the 1968 Chicago convention.

And Sanders’s supporters aren’t exactly rallying to his defense. Almost none of his high-profile surrogates, save Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva, have publicly backed his stance. And some of his own superdelegates seem hesitant to support the senator’s continued intransigence; most are concerned over the effect further angry outbursts could have on party unity. Many Sanders superdelegates appear loath to discuss the Nevada turmoil. Calls to several Sanders-supporting congressional offices went unreturned or were politely rebuffed, and one state party committeewoman says she won’t speak about the issue until after her upcoming reelection.

Others are refusing to take sides.

Sanders’s defiance hit a nerve, uniting leaders across the Democratic establishment in their condemnation of his response.

“That’s what Senator Sanders felt at the moment,” says Dottie Dean, a Sanders delegate from Vermont. “I’m not gonna weigh in on what he said. I just feel that my focus needs to be on electing Democrats, and everybody’s going to have an opinion.” Dean also refuses to criticize Democratic leaders for their attacks on Sanders, saying she’s unaware of their specific comments on the issue.

But some Sanders delegates are going to the mat for the senator. They are accusing the Democratic establishment of manufacturing an artificial crisis out of the chaos in Nevada. “I think a lot of this is really overblown,” says Rich Cassidy, a Sanders superdelegate from Vermont. “There are millions of people supporting Bernie Sanders, and some of them have extreme views and extreme ways of expressing their views. And you can’t be held accountable for what the most extreme people who happen to be your supporters do.”

Cassidy doesn’t give much weight to the Democratic establishment’s outrage over Sanders’s post-Nevada statement. “To say ‘Oh, he wasn’t forceful enough,’ that just strikes me as a way for people who want to be critical of Bernie Sanders to be critical of Bernie Sanders,” he says. “It’s just an excuse, and I don’t buy it.”

“I mean, we’re all Americans,” says Chris Regan, a Sanders delegate from West Virginia. “We all boo the referees when you feel like you’re getting hosed with a bad call. So if people feel like [the Nevada convention] wasn’t a fair procedure, then they have a bad reaction.”

But other Sanders delegates – even those who think the Democratic party has deeply mistreated the Vermont senator and his supporters – are uneasy over the growing tension. “What happened in Nevada still wasn’t right,” says Troy Jackson, a Sanders delegate from Maine. “Just like in Maine, we had Barney Frank here speaking on behalf of Hillary. People jeered him, and stuff like that. I didn’t think that was appropriate. I think he should’ve been able to speak for his candidate, even though I disagree with him wholeheartedly.”

Despite the very real angst amongst Sanders supporters, the Democratic party leadership is hardly the only thing preventing him from winning a come-from-behind victory. Setting aside Clinton’s massive lead in superdelegates – always a bone of contention with the pro-Sanders crowd – the former secretary of state still has nearly 300 more pledged delegates than Sanders. Though the Vermont senator continues to rack up victories — most recently in Oregon, where he bested Clinton on Tuesday by over ten points – the Democratic party’s proportional system for assigning delegates and Clinton’s relative success in populous southern and eastern states means Sanders’s route to victory is now effectively foreclosed.

Clinton finally said as much on Thursday, telling CNN the Democratic primary is effectively “already done” and that there’s “no way” she won’t be the nominee. But Sanders is refusing to back down, responding in a statement that the voters in West Virginia, Indiana, and Oregon “respectfully disagreed” with Clinton’s contention. “With almost every national and state poll showing Sen. Sanders doing much, much better than Secretary Clinton against Donald Trump, it is clear that millions of Americans have growing doubts about the Clinton campaign,” the campaign statement read.

Sanders superdelegates say they will back Clinton when and if she gains the nomination in July. But just like their foes in the Democratic establishment, some worry his rank-and-file supporters will cause trouble should he take the fight all the way to the Democratic convention. Jackson says he’s not confident the party will unify before the convention. “I’m only in Maine here, but I hear a lot of animosity against Secretary Clinton. A lot of people don’t trust her.”

Others are keeping their fingers crossed. “I hope the Sanders people would realize that there are rules and procedures, and things take time, and you don’t get anywhere screaming and yelling,” Gertonson says. “Otherwise, we could be facing total chaos in July.”

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