On Tuesday morning, a top aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) informed Rep. Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) that the presidential candidate planned to endorse him in his campaign for the Vermont Senate.
"I really had no idea what to expect," Pearson said.
Within hours, Sanders had emailed his massive list of donors asking for donations to Pearson's campaign and those of seven other state legislative candidates — from South Carolina to South Dakota. That night, as Pearson was walking to dinner, he logged in to his online fundraising platform and found that the appeal had already generated $30,000 in donations.
"I just about fell over," he said. "I was totally stunned."
By Friday afternoon, that number had doubled: According to Pearson, 12,185 Sanders supporters had donated $60,500 to his campaign. That's far more than candidates typically spend to compete in the six-member Chittenden County Senate district — and more than the roughly $40,000 Pearson had hoped to raise.
"What it means for me is now I don't have to spend time asking a small number of donors for big checks. That's not exactly comfortable for me," he said, noting that he's long fought for public election financing. "I feel pretty great to have Bernie financing. He has helped crowd-source my campaign and fund it, and that's pretty amazing."
Pearson's early fundraising success likely demonstrates just how powerful Sanders will remain even if he fails to win the Democratic nomination. Throughout his campaign, the Vermont senator has raised more than $212 million from more than 2.4 million individuals, making his list of donor email addresses among the most valuable in American politics.
A Sanders spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Friday about how the campaign selected its endorsees, nor how many supporters received the fundraising solicitation. But the list of candidates Sanders is backing includes many who endorsed his presidential campaign, including South Carolina Reps. Justin Bamberg (D-Bamberg) and Terry Alexander (D-Florence).
"Bernie believes that the path toward bold change requires leaders to take back control of state capitols around the country and ensure fair redistricting in 2020," Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said Tuesday in a written statement. "The leaders we're raising money for today are the members of Congress, senators and presidential candidates of tomorrow."
Sanders hasn't restricted his support to Statehouse candidates. He previously endorsed four congressional candidates, including Zephyr Teachout, a Vermont native running for Congress in New York, and Tim Canova, a Florida law professor challenging Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. On Thursday, Sanders also asked supporters to donate to former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold's effort to defeat Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
Pearson says he's encouraged not only that Sanders managed to bankroll his campaign but that he could do so for like-minded candidates around the country.
"What it says to me is he really has woken up millions of Americans who are aching for Progressive change at all levels of government," he said.