More than 13 million Americans voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries. And while the Vermont senator didn’t win the nomination, he walked away with a considerable consolation prize: a dedicated army of grassroots supporters that could be a potent force in Democratic politics for years to come.
As the 2018 midterm-election cycle heats up, the effort to transform that army into a force is advancing in fits and starts. It has been more effective at influencing the party rules than at sweeping its preferred candidates into office.
“It’s a little like the Howard Dean movement on steroids,” says Brad Todd, a political strategist who was the lead consultant behind the National Republican Congressional Committee’s strategy to retake the House in 2010. “The story’s been written about the traditional Republican-party leadership being overthrown by Donald Trump. What hasn’t been written as much is the story of the traditional Democratic party run by Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Al Gore being overthrown by people who don’t care to call themselves Democrats much.”
In August 2016, in a Burlington, Vt., senior center, Sanders announced plans to convert his campaign into a permanent activist group called “Our Revolution.”
“Over time, Our Revolution will involve hundreds of thousands of people. These are people who will be fighting at the grassroots level for changes in their local school boards, in their city councils, in their state legislatures, and in their representation in Washington,” Sanders said, adding that its activists would be “doing all that they can in every way to create an America based on the principles of economic, social, racial, and environmental justice.”
But Our Revolution experienced its own internal insurrection right out of the gate. Sanders picked his former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, to head up the new organization. Within a few days, the group’s entire organizing department quit, along with staffers working in digital and data positions. They accused Weaver of managing the campaign autocratically, mismanaging campaign funds, and basically blowing a winnable race against Hillary Clinton. But Weaver remained at the top, at least for a while.
Shortly after Donald Trump’s shock win in the November election, Our Revolution’s board met and set two immediate goals: “resisting” the Dakota Access Pipeline and electing Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota the next chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
The group declared that the Dakota Access Pipeline “crushes the lives of our Native sisters and brothers, farmers in Iowa, our water and the earth itself. Our commitment to tribal sovereignty, property rights and stopping climate change demands immediate action.” The pipeline did get quick action — from President Trump, who signed a memorandum on January 24 to advance approval of its construction. That was completed by April, oil was flowing by May, and the pipeline became commercially operational on June 1.
Our Revolution proved initially ineffective in its other big post-election goal, getting Ellison elected to lead the DNC. It is hard to overstate the white-hot fury many Sanders supporters felt and continue to feel towards the DNC over their sense that the 2016 primary was effectively rigged to ensure a Clinton victory. Ellison’s bid against former secretary of labor Tom Perez was something of a proxy fight between the Sanders and Clinton wings of the party — with Perez enjoying a lot of support from the Obama crowd as well. Sanders was never popular with the DNC: Just 39 of the 447 voting members supported him in the 2016 primaries. But Ellison expanded upon the limited existing Sanders constituency and won 200 votes (out of 435).
Realizing that he presided over a divided party and that not all the wounds of the 2016 primary fight had healed, Perez picked Ellison to be his top deputy and later made a decision that would become a key focus for Our Revolution: the empaneling of a “unity commission” to study the party’s presidential-nominating process and recommend changes for 2020. Perez’s 21-member panel included some key Our Revolution members, but a majority were Hillary Clinton allies, and many progressives grumbled that the unity commission was mere window dressing.
Instead, Our Revolution scored early victories via the commission. In mid December, the commission recommended a slate of reforms that included a lot of priorities of the Sanders camp, most notably changing 60 percent of the superdelegates (unelected and unpledged delegates who qualify by being governmental or party officials) to pledged delegates based on the results of presidential primaries and caucuses. In 2016, superdelegates overwhelmingly preferred Clinton to Sanders.
The victory is tentative, because all 447 DNC members will vote on the changes at their next full committee meeting this fall. Our Revolution’s leadership cheered the proposed changes but couldn’t resist twisting the knife. Board chairman Cohen declared: “It’s not enough to criticize Republicans for attacking the right to vote; Democrats must examine our own internal policies that may restrict voting as well.”
While most Democrats felt increasingly invigorated and optimistic about the party’s future as 2017 progressed, the DNC struggled, at least financially. The committee had $6.3 million in the bank in December, while the Republican National Committee had $40 million.
Although Our Revolution got the ball rolling on changing the party’s nomination rules, its preferred candidates had a mixed record at the ballot box. In the first big Democratic-primary fight of the Trump era, Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial primary, Our Revolution backed former congressman Tom Perriello, calling him a “bold progressive.” Both Perriello and Ralph Northam, the eventual winner, were imperfect vessels for the progressive agenda; Perriello wanted to bar insurance coverage of abortion and was endorsed by the National Rifle Association, and Northam voted twice for George W. Bush. But Perriello persuaded progressives he was their man, in part by making over-the-top comments such as, “The election of Donald Trump was a little bit like, you know, a political and constitutional September 11 for us, let’s be honest.” But he ultimately fell short, winning 44 percent in a high-turnout two-candidate primary.
By June, Weaver had departed and been replaced by Nina Turner, an African-American former state senator who jumped from the Clinton camp to the Sanders camp during the primary. Turner is an even more outspoken critic of the Democratic party’s leadership than Weaver; days before taking over the group, she compared on Twitter the difference between Democrats and Republicans to “the difference between the fox and the wolf!”
On July 25, Turner led a delegation of protesters to the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in Washington to deliver a petition for “the people’s platform,” a demand that all Democrats in Congress unite to establish universal single-payer health insurance, impose new taxes on stocks and bonds, require states to automatically register residents to vote when they get a driver’s license, permanently bar new fossil-fuel extraction from all federal public lands and in federal waters, ban privately run prisons, eliminate all restrictions on abortion, and raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2024.
Predictably, Turner was told that she and the protesters couldn’t enter, and she played up the alleged insult of this. As a bored security guard paced behind her, Turner bellowed through a bullhorn to a group of supporters on the other side of a metal barrier: “When I stepped on this side of the barrier, I was told I need to step on the other side, and that’s indicative of what’s wrong with the Democratic party.”
In the 2017 elections, Our Revolution endorsed 113 candidates, of whom 44 won. (In order to be endorsed by Our Revolution, a candidate must be nominated by a local group, agree with Our Revolution’s platform, and pledge to run “a positive campaign” and “reject money from corporate interests.”) The group also supported a winning Maine voter referendum to expand Medicaid coverage in the state.
These were mostly low-profile races for state legislatures, mayoralties, city councils, and school boards. Some were in predictable parts of the country — four of the wins came on the Cambridge, Mass., city council, and another five candidates were elected to local offices in Somerville, Mass. And as Todd notes, off-year local races have the lowest turnout of any elections in the four-year cycle, and are thus the lowest-hanging fruit for a band of committed ideological activists.
The Sanders movement was occasionally mocked for being overwhelmingly white, but Our Revolution endorsed a pair of young African-American southern mayors: Randall Woodfin, who beat two-term incumbent William Bell in Birmingham, Ala., and Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who is pledging to make Jackson, Miss., “the most radical city on the planet.” The group has already endorsed Ben Jealous, a former president of the NAACP and a founding member of the board of Our Revolution, in the 2018 Maryland governor’s race.
Some Republicans are not-so-quietly cheering the rise of Our Revolution, contending it will nominate candidates too extreme to win, even if the wind is at their backs in the midterm elections. “I think you’re going to see a lot of Bernie clones winning congressional primaries,” says Todd. “The more Berniecrats get nominated, the more likely it is that Republicans will hold the House.”
Beyond the midterms, whether or not Sanders or anyone in Our Revolution wants to say it out loud, the group’s existence as a political organization means the grassroots will be ready to go in 2020 if Sanders wants to run for president again. Turner has made clear she wants Sanders to be at the forefront of Democrats’ discussions about 2020, and she doesn’t want to hear any objections about the senator’s age, even though he’ll be 79 by Election Day of that year.
Jason Johnson, former chief strategist for Ted Cruz’s 2016 campaign, isn’t convinced that Our Revolution and the broader swathe of Sanders supporters are tilting at windmills. “It scares the hell out of me,” Johnson says. “Nature abhors a vacuum. Last time I checked, 2016 did not spawn an organized movement of champions of liberty. What seems radical to the over-65 crowd that has comprised the GOP base looks an awful lot like the future to the young radicals who are ‘feeling the Bern.’ And as of this moment our response — at least at scale — is nada.”