Prominent Democrats are increasingly riled by attacks from Bernie Sanders' supporters, whose demands for ideological purity are hurting the party ahead of the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential election, they say.
But it’s not just the outside agitators that Democratic lawmakers, operatives, and activists are annoyed with: They’re tired of what they see as the senator’s hesitance to confront his own backers, either in public or through back channels.
Tensions boiled over recently when a handful of Sanders loyalists bashed freshman Sen. Kamala Harris — a rising star in the party and potential 2020 hopeful — as an establishment tool. Democrats were also rankled that other prominent Sanders allies said support for single-payer health care should be a litmus test for candidates.
In response, Democratic senators and outside groups have begun telling Sanders and friendly intermediaries that if he wants to be a leading figure for Democrats ahead of 2020’s presidential election, he needs to get his supporters in line — or at least publicly disavow their more incendiary statements.
The confrontations, they insist, threaten party unity ahead of a critical midterm election cycle, when Democrats have a shot at winning the House and several governor’s offices.
“The Democratic Party has treated Senator Sanders exceptionally well. We collectively let him run in our primaries when he declared he wasn’t a Democrat — I count that as a great favor, and an opportunity almost no one else has ever received,” said former Democratic National Committee chairman Don Fowler, who has called for the independent Sanders to formally join the party.
“I don’t know what his intentions are in terms of the future,” Fowler added, referring to the senator's willingness to corral his supporters. “Senator Sanders has to make his own decisions about what’s responsible to do."
The mutual mistrust goes beyond the establishment vs. insurgent divide that defined 2016’s presidential primary. Some Democrats from the progressive wing of the party agree that he needs to do more to rein in his supporters.
If Sanders intends to lead the party, said one Democratic operative who’s worked with him, requesting to speak anonymously like many others for fear of reprisal from Sanders backers, “you don’t get to wash your hands of all of this.”
The complaints have largely gone unheeded by Sanders’ camp. Many of the senator’s closest allies insist such frustration simply reflects the same misunderstanding of Sanders’ “political revolution” Democrats have had since he first started running for president.
“Bernie Sanders really does lead a movement, he doesn’t run an organization. And movements are different from organizations,” said Mark Longabaugh, a veteran Democratic strategist who was a senior advisor to Sanders' campaign. “A movement operates organically and moves on its own. It can have leaders, but no one directs a movement.”
Democrats' frustration about Sanders' unwillingness to confront his backers has intensified since it first emerged during the 2016 campaign.
In one of the most contentious moments, the candidate himself refused to condemn supporters in Nevada who revolted against Hillary Clinton's delegate win during that state party’s May convention.
Many Democrats are concerned that Sanders no longer has any control over the vast political network surrounding him after his 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver left the helm of Our Revolution in June. That national political organization, Sanders' post-campaign creation, is now led by former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, who was a strident supporter of the Vermonter and a Clinton critic in 2016.
Last month, Democrats across Capitol Hill were quick to circulate a BuzzFeed report in which Turner called the DNC “dictatorial” and “insulting.” They were concerned that a group with the reach of Our Revolution’s could be doing significant damage to the party’s efforts to re-engage with Sanders voters.
“It’s a huge frustration. Senators roll their eyes and acknowledge it’s one of the biggest threats to the Democratic Party, the division that they sow,” said one senior Democratic Senate aide who has worked with Sanders' office. “It would be so helpful for him to be more forceful or forthright that this isn’t the point of what his efforts were.”
Fellow Democrats have employed a variety of tactics to try and relay their concern to Sanders, who is still learning how to play the inside game customarily expected of a party leader.
Just as Turner was complaining about the DNC, a range of Democratic senators and their top political staffers were closely following a string of stories that quoted Sanders supporters criticizing Harris.
In one interview, the co-founder of a group called People for Bernie said Harris was being anointed as the candidate "of extremely wealthy and out-of-touch Democratic Party donors."
After a handful of such stories, Harris herself spoke with Sanders on the Senate floor about the criticism, said multiple Democrats briefed on the exchange.
Soon after, Longabaugh praised the first-term lawmaker in her home-state Sacramento Bee, leading to a de-escalation of tensions.
“Nobody part of Bernie’s inner circle had anything to do with that, or would have any part of the criticism of Senator Harris,” he told the newspaper last month.
Other Democratic senators have nudged colleagues who they think might be useful bridges to Sanders, asking them to step in. That group includes Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a fellow progressive who was the only senator to back Sanders in 2016.
Among the concerns: how Turner — appointed to the DNC’s “unity commission” by Sanders in April — has pilloried the party messaging effort put together by Schumer in conjunction with his leadership team that includes Sanders. But their primary complaint has been that Sanders hasn’t sufficiently directed his backers to attack Republicans — not fellow Democrats — with the midterm elections looming.
At no point was this worry more apparent than after the leaders of the National Nurses Union refused last month to rule out supporting primary challenges for Senate Democrats who don’t support his Medicare-for-all health care bill. The group, one of Sanders' closest allies, vowed to “[hold] the Democrats accountable.”
Sanders’ own campaign pollster called the measure a litmus test in the same POLITICO report. And Turner — whose group houses the huge email list Sanders’ team built during his campaign and subsequently refused to hand over to the DNC — said “there’s something wrong” with Democrats who don’t support Sanders’ measure.
Yet it took three weeks for Sanders himself to weigh in. He told the Washington Post that his health care legislation wouldn’t serve as a litmus test for whether or not to back fellow senators. It was hardly a disavowal of his allies’ rhetoric, though, and the delay left other lawmakers sweating about primary challenges for nearly a month.
Even after he spoke up, multiple Democratic operatives who supported him in 2016 worried his statement was too little, too late. After all, the Sanders Institute — the think tank led by Sanders’ wife, whose website is plastered with pictures of the senator — published the health care proposal pushed by the same nurses union.
To Sanders and the collection of people closest to him, such discussion is further evidence that his critics will never be satisfied, multiple Sanders confidants said. They believe the divide between the senator and his backers couldn’t be clearer, and that anyone who pays attention to his stated goals and looks at his actions as a member of Democrats’ Senate leadership team should understand he finds the attacks on Harris and other sitting Democrats counterproductive.
Anyway, goes the frequent refrain from Sanders allies who paraphrase the senator’s common campaign season reminder, he can’t just snap his fingers and make his supporters fall in line. If Sanders supporters’ vehemence is anyone’s problem, they say in private, it’s the public’s problem for not understanding the divide between his words and his fans’.
And they insist that Sanders’ campaign-season elevation of figures like Turner — not to mention his creation of Our Revolution — is irrelevant now. They point out that Sanders demonstrated his support for fellow Democratic senators by organizing health care-focused rallies for several earlier this year.
“The left wing of the Democratic Party has a set of institutions and players that pre-dated Bernie’s campaign for President of the United States, and they still exist now that the campaign is over. They are going to pursue their own objectives as they see fit,” said Longabaugh. “I don’t think it’s a problem for him at all.”