Bernie Sanders' Progressive Movement Is Influencing Democratic Political Campaigns All Over the US

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run turned out to be much more than a political campaign—it became a movement. When the self-described “democratic socialist” entered the Democratic primary and challenged presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton, he never pretended to be a centrist. Sanders, now 76, ran as a hardcore, unapologetic liberal/progressive, calling for an aggressive return to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and bringing in millions of dollars in campaign contributions. And two years later, with the 2018 midterms approaching, Sanders’ influence is asserting itself all over the U.S. 


The biggest Sanders-influenced upset of the year occurred in Queens and the Bronx, where 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a member of the Democratic Socialists of America—challenged the high-ranking Rep. Joe Crowley in a Democratic congressional primary and defeated him by a landslide on June 26. Ocasio-Cortez ran to the left of Crowley, campaigning on single-payer healthcare, a national minimum wage of $15 per hour, and other issues Sanders had brought to the forefront in 2016. And in November, she will be running against Republican Anthony Pappas for the House of Representatives seat that Crowley will be vacating.

Given her ability to defeat Crowley—a ten-term incumbent who was by no means a lightweight in Democratic Party politics—Ocasio-Cortez is obviously a very aggressive campaigner. And Sanders has been making use of her energy. This month in Wichita, Kansas, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez both campaigned for James Thompson, a civil rights lawyer who will be running against far-right Republican Rep. Ron Estes for a seat in the House of Representatives.

In Missouri, Ocasio-Cortez has campaigned for nurse Cori Bush, who issued a Democratic congressional primary challenge to Rep. Lacy Clay and has been running to the left of him politically. Clay is a political veteran: he has been representing Missouri in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2001—and his father, 87-year-old William L. Clay, held the same seat in the House from 1969-2001. For Bush, taking on a member of the Clay family is as bold as Ocasio-Cortez challenging Crowley. And the Missouri primary will be held on August 7. 

In Texas, Sanders ally Linsey Fagan is running for a seat in the House of Representatives against Republican incumbent Michael Burgess, who has held the seat since 2003. Fagan is a supporter of single-payer health care, which she believes is a “litmus test now for Democrats.” And even though she’s running a very liberal/progressive campaign in a deeply Republican district, Fagan has been endorsed by Brand New Congress—a left-of-center organization that is also supporting Ocasio-Cortez and Bush.

One of the biggest triumphs for a Sanders ally occurred this year in Pennsylvania, where John Fetterman (mayor of the small town of Braddock in Allegheny County) challenged Lt. Gov. Michael Stack from the left in a Democratic primary and won on May 15. And in November, Fetterman will be running on the same ticket as incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf, who is seeking reelection. Sanders has been campaigning aggressively for Fetterman (whose positions include single-payer healthcare, a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage and ending the Prison/Industrial Complex) and sees him as exemplary of the direction the Democratic Party should be moving in.

Pennsylvania’s importance as a swing state cannot be overstated. Philadelphia is overwhelmingly Democratic and hasn’t had a Republican mayor since the early 1950s, yet Central Pennsylvania—which has been jokingly referred to as “Pennsissippi” and “Pennsyltucky”—can be a lot more conservative. And when Hillary Clinton lost the Keystone State to Donald Trump in November 2016, she was reminded that Democrats should take nothing for granted in Pennsylvania. Clinton was the first Democrat to lose Pennsylvania in a presidential race since Michael Dukakis in 1988, and Trump performed especially well in places like Altoona and Johnstown. So the Wolf/Fetterman ticket will need to offer a bold alternative to Trumpism in the Rust Belt.

In 2018, Sanders is receiving a lot of requests for endorsements. But the Vermont senator is selective about who he campaigns for, and the people he has been coming out in support of—from Osasio-Cortez to Fetterman to Thompson—are decidedly left-of-center and are pushing for a sequel to the politics of FDR’s New Deal and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society (which gave us Medicare and Medicaid). The vision that Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Fetterman and Thompson have been articulating could be described as New Deal 3.0; the Great Society was New Deal 2.0, and not since Johnson has the U.S. had a truly liberal/progressive president. The presidencies of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were generally centrist. 

Sanders has had a busy year. And as the November midterms draw closer, the 76-year-old Vermont senator is likely to become even busier.

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