Skip to content

Will Sanders Supporters Become a Liberal Tea Party?

Disruptions at convention could presage electoral changes

An anti-fracking demonstrator riding atop the "Bus for Progress," sports a Sen. Bernie Sanders doll near City Hall in Philadelphia on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
An anti-fracking demonstrator riding atop the "Bus for Progress," sports a Sen. Bernie Sanders doll near City Hall in Philadelphia on the eve of the Democratic National Convention. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Bernie Sanders arrives in Philadelphia vanquished but unbowed.   

Platform negotiations brought compromises he can support on the issues that framed his campaign: trade protection, affordable college and universal health care. His call for the ouster of Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been honored . And he has a prominent speaking role at the convention Monday night.  

But his supporters — protesting in the streets, shouting down party leaders and threatening to disrupt speeches on the floor — could undermine hard-fought negotiations to unify the Democratic Party in advance on November’s election.  


Full Coverage of the Democratic National Convention


Beyond Philadelphia, though, it remains unclear whether Sanders and his call for a revolution will have a lasting imprint on the party. Almost a quarter-century after President Bill Clinton pulled the party to the center, Sanders wants to push it back to the left. And he’s promising to do so by mobilizing his legions of supporters and leveraging his formidable fundraising ability to elect progressive candidates up and down the ballot.  

“We have set the agenda for the future of America…,” Sanders said at a meeting with his delegates Monday afternoon. “How do we build on our successes? How do we continue the political revolution?”  

The question then is whether Sanders’ movement will lead to a stronger Democratic Party or divide it, much as the tea party movement has split the GOP.

Taking the fight to Philly

Sanders’ victory in shaping the party platform earlier this month — it is widely considered to be the most liberal in years — initially seemed to quell the dissent.  


Democrats to Promote Positive Vision Amid Divisions


Sanders was pleased enough with the document — which calls for a $15 minimum wage, abolition of the death penalty and free community college — that he endorsed Clinton  earlier this month two days after it became final. At the same time, he’s argued that it doesn’t go far enough. In particular, Sanders would have liked a plank critical of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sweeping trade deal President Barack Obama has pushed but that both Sanders and Clinton oppose.  

Over the weekend, the party agreed to a commission that would re-evaluate the super delegate system, in which party leaders and elected officials automatically become convention delegates, and consider opening primaries to independent voters.  

The apparent peace between the party’s factions dissolved late last week when Wikileaks released a series of DNC emails that suggested committee staff were working against Sanders. Clinton’s decision to pick Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate angered some Sanders supporters, who had hoped for a more progressive vice presidential candidate.  


Wasserman Schultz Will Step Down As DNC Chair


Protesters arrived in full force, marching through the streets of Philadelphia both Sunday and Monday. Even after Wasserman Schultz stepped down from the committee chairmanship, protesters shouted the Florida congresswoman down at a Monday morning breakfast with her state delegation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was also heckled at a California delegation breakfast.

Looking down the ballot


Sanders has already vowed to support Wasserman Schultz’s opponent in her August congressional primary . That is just one small piece of a broader effort to elect more progressive candidates across the country, making public calls for like-minded people to step up and run for office. He said Monday he would support 100 progressive candidates across the country.  

“What we need is people standing up, running for school board, and we need other people to be helping them win,” Sanders told supporters in Albany, New York, in late June, sentiments he echoed Monday. “And we need people running for city council, for mayor, you know, for state legislature.”  

In a live-stream address to supporters in June, Sanders asked for people interested in seeking local office or campaigning for those who do to contact his operation through a new page on his website. In the first week, roughly 20,000 did. Now the Vermont independent seems ready to put his ability to raise large sums from small-dollar contributions to work for his movement.  


Trump Tries to Woo Sanders Supporters by Trolling Trump


“We are prepared to try to help you. We have millions and millions of names. One of the things that we’re doing right now is we have given support to … a number of candidates running for Congress, running for state legislature,” Sanders said.  

Another Vermonter, former Democratic Gov. Howard Dean , used the support he gained in the 2004 presidential election to launch an organization, Democracy for America, dedicated to expanding progressive influence in those down-ballot races. The organization is encouraging Sanders to do the same.  

“It would be an incredible asset to have an organization coming out of Bernie Sanders’ campaign that we can work with and partner with,” said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the group.

Mixed results so far

Sanders’ efforts in down-ballot races in 2016 have had mixed results. Though some of his candidates lost, he helped them raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, allowing them to remain competitive in their primaries.  

Lucy Flores, a former member of the Nevada state Assembly, was one of them. Sanders’ fundraising email on her behalf brought in more than $400,000. A Democrat, Flores ultimately lost the primary to state Sen. Ruben Kihuen who gets to take on Republican Rep. Cresent Hardy in the state’s 4th District in November. But she helped change the conversation in the race with her strident criticism of Wall Street.  


Sanders Delegates Weigh Kaine Challenge


Flores said it was “inevitable” that the Sanders campaign will morph into a campaign operation for progressive candidates. But her loss indicates that it’s not going to be easy to change the party. “This is not a change that is going to occur overnight,” she said.  

Strategists who are asked about the Sanders’ effect down-ballot often point to Zephyr Teachout’s win in the Democratic primary in upstate New York’s 19th Congressional District. The incumbent, Republican Chris Gibson, is not running and it’s a prime pickup opportunity for the Democrats.  

But it’s not clear how much Sanders had to do with Teachout’s primary win. Though the senator helped raise money for her campaign, she had immense name recognition from a previous gubernatorial run and was one of the favorites from the start.  

Democratic consultant Rick Ridder said the key for more down-ballot success is picking the right candidates and analyzing changing demographics that reflect potential pickup opportunities.  

“If you’re going to go pick cherries, you got to know where the cherries are,” Ridder said.

‘Berniecrats’ on their own

As the Sanders campaign weighs its next moves, some of his supporters are taking matters into their own hands. Several former staffers formed “Brand New Congress,” a group with an ambitious plan to run hundreds of candidates in 2018.  


The Emotional Life of Sanders Supporters


The goal is to back more “Berniecrats,” or candidates who run on Sanders’ platform, and take over the Congress in one fell swoop. The founders believe that thinking big keeps people energized.  

“If you ask somebody to do something big, to win something big, then people show up,” said Becky Bond, a former senior adviser to the Sanders campaign.  

Bond spoke at a gathering of 3,000 activists and Sanders supporters in Chicago in June called “The People’s Summit .” She said the energy was strong and people were eager to figure out their next steps.  

Part of the challenge is uniting all the different groups and pockets of supporters, and channeling that energy to make real change. Some of these groups include more established progressive organizations like and Democracy for America. The Sanders campaign also spurred others, such as Millennials for Sanders, which is now considering becoming a political action committee.  


Will Sanders Hill Internship Be Hottest Ticket for Wonky Millennials?


“I think everyone’s going to have to find their spot,” said Katy Hellman, a former Sanders campaign staffer. “But we do need to find a way to continue to support each other and maintain collaboration.”  

Hellman worked on a team that coordinated grass-roots groups of Sanders supporters on the ground who traveled to different states, giving them training and tools to help the campaign.  

When her team was cut during a campaign shake-up, she reached out to her contacts, who were eager to maintain their momentum. Since then, she has been working on corralling the more than 80 groups and developing a website to mobilize them.  

“I’m sort of operating under the impression that we’re going to do this on our own,” Hellman said.

Ditch the Democrats?

One question is the extent to which these supporters will back candidates within the Democratic Party or challenge sitting Democrats in an attempt to make the party more progressive.  

“My guess is when push comes to shove a lot of these young people will end up Democrats, but I think it’s quite possible they create a tea party-like movement on the left,” said Democratic strategist Brad Bannon.  


Democrats May Find Occupy Movement Is Not That Into Them


But other Democrats were skeptical that the progressive movement would go that far.  

Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who heads the party’s Senate campaign arm, hopes to work with Sanders and said he’s not concerned about the Vermont independent trying to unseat incumbents.  

That’s the prevailing view on Capitol Hill. “I don’t think Bernie Sanders is going to turn into Jim DeMint,” said Connecticut Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, referring to the former South Carolina Republican senator who now runs the Heritage Foundation and has turned the once-staid think tank into a campaign operation for conservatives. Murphy is one of the vast majority of Senate Democrats who endorsed Clinton.  

“I could be wrong. I just don’t think that that’s his intent,” Murphy said. “I think he’ll get a lot more done by becoming an influential voice inside the caucus … I’m not suggesting he’s never going to support a primary candidate. But I don’t think his intent is to go create a big outside organization to primary lots of incumbent members.”  

Bond said progressives are not a left-wing version of the tea party, but rather a burgeoning movement finding its strength. “We’re not talking about a very vocal minority like the tea party who are willing to go to extreme lengths to impact the outcome of policy decisions,” she said. “What we’re seeing is ‘little d’ democracy exploding.”

Moving forward

“The to-do list is beat Trump, elect progressives, shape the platform and keep building the movement energy by giving people stuff to do,” said Ben Wikler, the Washington director for, which backed Sanders in the primaries.  


Sanders Signals He’ll Work With Clinton to Beat Trump


No matter in what direction Sanders’ movement goes, Democratic leaders have taken notice of his supporters.  

“I think we used to view Bernie and his followers as an important small part of our party. Now we have learned that it’s a larger part of our party,” said Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democrats’ Senate whip. “And he has shown with a very dynamic and effective campaign that there are many people who are looking for progressive answers to the challenges we face.”  

Sanders supporters said they want to seize this moment and make sure the passion that fueled Sanders’ campaign does not fade. “One of the things that I know is that they’re not going home,” said Bond.

Contact Lesniewski at

 and follow him on Twitter 



Contact Bowman at 

 and follow her on Twitter 



Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.

Recent Stories

Total eclipse of the Hart (and Russell buildings) — Congressional Hits and Misses

House plans to send Mayorkas impeachment articles to Senate on Tuesday

Harris sticks with Agriculture spending, Amodei likely to head DHS panel

Editor’s Note: What passes for normal in Congress

House approves surveillance authority reauthorization bill

White House rattles its saber with warnings to Iran, China about attacking US allies