Over nearly three decades on Capitol Hill, Sen. Bernie Sanders has refused to formally identify as a Democrat. His 2016 primary challenge against Hillary Clinton exposed deep divisions among Democrats and fundamentally reshaped the party.
But as the Vermont independent seeks the Democratic presidential nomination again, he is taking steps to assure skeptical party faithful that he's one of them.
A self-declared democratic socialist, Sanders told a nationally televised town hall this week that he would support the eventual Democratic nominee even if it's not him. He also has indicated he will commit to the Democratic National Committee that he will run as a Democrat and remain loyal to the party.
Sanders has established himself as one of the early front-runners in the primary. He took in more than $10 million, overwhelmingly from small donors, in the first week since he announced his candidacy, while wresting away the media spotlight from others. As he prepares to hold his first campaign rally this weekend, Sanders is testing a dual strategy of holding onto his most enthusiastic backers while luring traditional Democrats whose support is crucial.
For now, his pledges don't satisfy some Democratic stalwarts who are still raw from the 2016 fight and worry that Sanders' left-flank policy pursuits could make it impossible for the party to reclaim the White House.
"Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat, and his ideology will not sell in the industrial belt in November," said Bob Mulholland, a national committeeman from California who pointed to such traditionally Democratic states as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania where Donald Trump prevailed over Clinton and clinched the race.
"You cannot run on the Venezuelan socialist program and think you can be elected president of the United States," added Mulholland, who backs his home-state senator, Kamala Harris, in 2020.
In South Carolina, home to the first Southern primary, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson said it's "hard to take someone seriously who flirts" with a party yet keeps his distance. Sanders "takes credit for shaping the Democratic platform, but will not commit to actually being a Democrat," said Kimpson, who backed Clinton in 2016 and is uncommitted for 2020.
Sanders has carefully calibrated his approach, emphasizing that he's functionally a Democrat in Congress, even if he doesn't officially join the party.
"I am a member of the Democratic leadership in the United States Senate," he said at a CNN town hall this week.
Yet last year, he turned down Vermont Democrats' Senate nomination, a move that allowed him to win his third term as an independent — without a Democrat on the ballot against him. Independence, he argues, attracts disenchanted voters.
"We can bring them into the Democratic Party to help create a party which will stand with the working families" against "the very powerful special interests who wield so much economic and political power," Sanders told CNN.
Several other presidential candidates, including Harris and Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, acknowledged Sanders' appeal last year by signing on as co-sponsors of his single-payer health insurance bill. Many of them echo some version of his call for tuition-free college and a "living wage" for all Americans.
Yet they draw distinctions.
"I'm not a democratic socialist," Harris said recently in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary.
Warren, who has built a reputation as a working-class advocate, told a New England business and civic group, that she is "a capitalist to my bones." Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke, who is considering a presidential run, recently offered the same assurances of capitalist fealty.
Most presidential hopefuls spent the 2018 midterm campaign traversing the country to speak at state and local party fundraisers and events for establishment favorites. Warren sent $5,000 to every state Democratic Party.
That ingratiates candidates with rank-and-file party leaders, many of them "superdelegates" who overwhelmingly favored Clinton in 2016. Those party leaders have since had their first-ballot 2020 convention votes stripped under a DNC rules change that Sanders and his supporters helped push. But those officials still are free to endorse candidates and wield their influence in fundraising and recruiting volunteers.
Sanders counters that he has helped candidates in dozens of states since 2016. But true to his outsider status, his slate featured fewer incumbents, and he is rarely, if ever, a featured speaker for any Democratic function.
One of his early 2016 backers, South Carolina legislator Justin Bamberg, said party brass grousing over Sanders should remind themselves how successful he's been in pulling other Democrats toward his policies. "I don't see how you can support a Cory Booker or a Kamala Harris or a Tulsi Gabbard or an Elizabeth Warren and talk trash about Bernie Sanders," said Bamberg, who remains uncommitted for 2020. Gabbard is a congresswoman from Hawaii.
Still, Sanders' most immediate concerns may come in Bamberg's state. After battling Clinton essentially to a draw in Iowa, defeating her in New Hampshire and losing a competitive caucus in Nevada, Sanders met his defining setback in the South's first primary. African-Americans and white moderates who dominate the contest delivered Clinton a 47-point margin of victory, and she repeated the trouncing through the South to build an early pledged delegate lead that Sanders could not close.
Any improvement hinges on Democrats such as Chandra Dillard, a legislative black caucus member from Greenville, South Carolina. "As long as your voting record is with me and my issues and what my people see as issues," she said, "I don't have a problem with what you call yourself."
A former Iowa Democratic Party chairman, Scott Brennan, said a fair assessment finds a mixed party record for Sanders. "Party building comes in many forms," Brennan said, crediting the senator for bringing "a lot of energy and new folks."
As to whether that's a net gain for Democrats in 2020, Brennan offered a simple measure.
"You've got to win," he said. "Four more years of Trump, that's unsustainable. That's the issue."
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