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Bernie Sanders tests influence in House primaries for open seats

Vermont senator seeks to build the progressive roster in Congress

Sen. Bernie Sanders is moving on from his presidential campaign, turning his attention to races further down the ballot. And he’s not just taking on Republicans or sitting Democrats who aren’t sufficiently liberal. 

The Vermont independent is also weighing in on crowded, open-seat primaries in Democratic territory in an effort to bring more progressives to the House. Primaries for two open seats next week around New York City could test whether his endorsement provides a last-minute boost in fundraising and energy that his favored candidates need to win.

In New York’s 17th District, where Democrat Nita M. Lowey is retiring, Sanders has endorsed lawyer Mondaire Jones. And in the race for retiring Democratic Rep. José E. Serrano’s 15th District seat, Sanders split with other liberal groups to back activist Samelys López. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates both races Solid Democratic.

For Sanders’ supporters, his involvement in congressional races is furthering the liberal movement he fostered as a presidential contender.

“His ‘not me, us’ moment is supporting these down-ballot candidates,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, director of the New York Working Families Party, referring to Sanders’ 2020 campaign slogan. 

Open-seat opportunities

Sanders endorsed several congressional candidates in 2018, but this year he appears more willing to wade into crowded primaries in districts where the incumbent is retiring.

Sanders endorsed in just two of 14 safe Democratic open seats in 2018. In the 2020 cycle, Sanders has endorsed candidates in four of the eight open-seat races in deep-blue territory.

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Sanders campaign spokesman Mike Casca noted that the senator is still focused on defeating President Donald Trump and helping Democrats win back the Senate.

“But defeating Republicans isn’t enough,” Casca said in a statement. “He believes we need members of Congress who will take on the political establishment and fight for working families of this country who right now are in very desperate shape.”

Jones, who was challenging Lowey before she decided to retire, welcomed Sanders’ endorsement, noting that open seats present better opportunities to elect more liberal lawmakers. Defeating an incumbent in a primary is difficult and rare, and the Democratic nominee in an open, deep-blue district is likely to head to Congress. 

“I think progressives oftentimes become so focused on unseating incumbents that they miss opportunities like this,” Jones said in a phone interview. “So [Sanders’ endorsement has] been a great help in refocusing progressive energy on this race.” 

Sean McElwee, co-founder of the liberal polling and policy group Data for Progress, wrote after the 2018 elections that liberals should “seriously contest” primaries in safe Democratic districts, rather than focusing on swing seats. He said in a phone interview that progressive groups and leaders, including Sanders, seem to be embracing that strategy.

Early test

The New York primaries are an early test for Sanders’ influence in these open-seat races. Just one of his endorsed candidates, San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez, has had a primary so far and she is still facing a Democrat in November because California law pits the two candidates who get the most votes in the primary, regardless of party, against each other in the general election. 

Like other candidates Sanders has endorsed, Jones and López support liberal policies, including “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. Both campaigns reached out to Sanders about an endorsement, emphasizing those liberal policies in their pitches. 

López was an early Sanders supporter in 2016. Jones declined to say if he voted for Sanders then, noting, “I’ve got a constituent named Hillary Clinton who, as of now, has stayed out of this race.” 

Both candidates were inspired by Sanders’ presidential runs. 

“We would not be talking about Medicare for All right now were it not for Bernie Sanders having championed that issue,” Jones said. 

By endorsing Jones last week, Sanders joined other progressive groups and leaders in backing the lawyer, who worked in the Obama administration. The Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC launched its first independent expenditure to boost Jones, who is in a crowded field of eight Democrats. 

Jones is among three candidates who have raised more than $1 million in the primary. The others are former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Evelyn Farkas, who has the support of EMILY’s List, and lawyer Adam Schleifler, who has spent nearly $4 million of his own money on the race.  

A poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found Jones leading the field with 25 percent. Farkas and Schleifer were at 14 percent each.  Twenty-four percent were undecided. The poll, commissioned by the Greenburgh Democratic Committee, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 points. It surveyed 1,141 likely voters on Monday and Tuesday via landline phones and text messages.

Sanders split with other progressives in the 15th District primary, which features a dozen Democrats. The Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC endorsed New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, noting in its endorsement that there are “dramatic stakes” in the race, since another city councilman, Rubén Díaz Sr., could win the primary with a plurality, given his high name recognition. 

Díaz has a history of homophobic remarks and controversial comments, and said last month he’s considering voting for Trump. The other top Democrats include López; state Assemblyman Michael Blake, whom Georgia Rep. John Lewis recently endorsed; and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

By endorsing López, Sanders potentially complicates a push to coalesce around Torres and deny Díaz the nomination. López also has the Working Families Party’s endorsement and Nnaemeka did not directly answer whether she was concerned about Díaz winning the primary. 

Nnaemeka did say that the “stamp of approval” from Sanders could help set López apart, noting that drawing a contrast in the crowded field was “tremendously important.” 

The Sanders effect

Both the Jones and López campaigns said they already had momentum before Sanders weighed in. But they said the endorsements have boosted their fundraising thanks to the senator’s expansive email list. 

“The fundraising is just extraordinary,” Jones said, noting he raised $35,000 in the first six hours after Sanders’ endorsement.

“Fundraising has really taken off, ” López spokesman Jonathan Soto said. The campaign raked in $40,000 the day the endorsement was announced.  

For these campaigns, the extra cash could help pay for digital ads, or go toward a pricey television ad, which are especially important with in-person campaigning limited during the coronavirus pandemic.

Sanders is also looking to mobilize his grassroots army by holding a day of action on Saturday when his supporters will make phone calls on behalf of his endorsed candidates. 

Both campaigns are hoping to appeal to Sanders’ supporters who are looking for a new political outlet now that his presidential campaign is over. 

“Having Bernie Sanders’ imprimatur on this race makes it more real to them, that this is a continuation of the progressive movement,” Jones said.

Though he suspended his campaign, Sanders’ name will still be on the New York ballot in the presidential primary, so supporters looking to boost his delegate share at the party’s convention may also back his preferred down-ballot candidates.

Whether his endorsement is a game-changer remains to be seen, especially in the 15th District. 

In a Data for Progress poll conducted last month, 22 percent of likely Democratic voters surveyed backed Díaz, 20 percent backed Torres, and the rest of the field was in the single digits. One percent backed López. Soto disputed the poll’s “text-to-web” methodology and accused McElwee of supporting Torres. McElwee denied that, but said he has been sounding the alarm about the potential of a Díaz victory. 

As for Sanders’ endorsement in these primaries, McElwee said, “I don’t think it’s going to pull anyone across the finish line. … It really is, ‘Here’s an email list. Here’s 25-50,000. Hopefully this helps.’”

But, he later added, “maybe I’ll be wrong.” 

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