- File: Glenn Russell
- Sen. Bernie Sanders at a rally in Williston
On a sunny Sunday in mid-October, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) reflected on just how much the national policy debate has shifted in recent years.
"I have been through many, many states throughout this country," he told a couple hundred Vermonters gathered in an event barn at Williston's Isham Family Farm. "And what I am enormously proud of is that many of the ideas that we led with right here in the state of Vermont — ideas that three years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago were seen to be radical and extreme — are now being adopted by cities and states and politicians all across this country."
Sanders ticked through the list: a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free public college and the proposal that has animated him throughout his 28 years in Congress, universal health care.
"Last poll that I saw," he said, "70 percent of the American people support a Medicare-for-all, single-payer program."
What Sanders didn't say — and didn't have to say to the crowd of knowing supporters — was that the senator himself has been, to a certain degree, responsible for that transformation.
"He's the most popular politician in America," said Middlebury College's Bill McKibben, an outspoken Sanders supporter. "And in our legislative process, popularity is a strong currency that you can use to advance important goals."
Said Phil Fiermonte, a longtime Sanders aide who retired last year, "He's kind of like the explainer-in-chief. He can lay things out for people so they really get it."
As Sanders campaigns for a third term in the U.S. Senate, he is doing so from a position of power and influence that few anticipated when he last sought reelection in 2012, well before his improbable 2016 presidential bid.
"He went from being perceived by many at the national level as a bit of a gadfly to being seen as a very serious contender for the presidency," said veteran political operative Bill Lofy. "That's a significant transformation over the course of a relatively short period of time."
Sanders clearly isn't ready to relinquish the national spotlight he's long craved and finally earned. Looming over his Senate reelection campaign is the likelihood that he will mount a second presidential campaign in 2020 and seek the Democratic nomination to take on Republican President Donald Trump.
"He has not made a decision about whether he's going to run again," said 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver, who called on his boss to enter the race in his May 2018 book, How Bernie Won. But, Weaver added, "he's well-positioned" to do so.
"I sure hope he does," Fiermonte said, noting that Sanders has taken many of the steps that a candidate-in-waiting might: "getting around, going to key states, having a national soapbox, having Weaver on board. All those things."
One challenge, Fiermonte conceded, could be Sanders' age. He would be 79 on Inauguration Day — and many of the Democratic candidates he would likely face are a generation younger.
"But I'll tell you," Fiermonte said, "Bernie runs circles around the 20-year-old interns in the office. He's got stamina and energy like no one I've ever seen. He's like the Energizer Bunny."
Sanders has been careful not to disclose his plans yet, for fear of distracting attention from what he calls "the most important midterm election in the modern history of this country." But his aides will be ready if he decides to pull the trigger. Politico reported two weeks ago that Weaver has been talking up a "draft Bernie" effort that could be rolled out after the midterms.
"There are a number of grassroots groups and individuals who would like to start some kind of a 'draft Bernie' [entity] to encourage him to run," Weaver told Seven Days. "I have an email inbox full of former staffers" who would like to get involved.
Asked Monday evening during a candidate forum in Winooski whether he would serve out his six-year term if reelected, Sanders provided an elliptical response.
"If you're asking me to make an absolute pledge as to whether I'll be running for president or not, I'm not going to make that pledge," he said. "The simple truth is, I have not made that decision. But I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I may not run. I may. But on the other hand, I may not."
He added, "Probably impossible to be a senator and a president at the same time."
Several of Sanders' eight opponents in the Senate race have sought to make an issue of the incumbent's presidential aspirations.
During a debate earlier Monday at Vermont Public Radio's Colchester studios, Republican nominee Lawrence Zupan noted that Sanders missed nearly 71 percent of the Senate's roll-call votes when he was running for president in 2016. Zupan called it a "dereliction of duty" and accused his opponent of putting his "personal, political and presidential goals" before his commitment to Vermonters.
"When you run for president of the United States of America, you gotta get out of Vermont, and you gotta get out of Washington," Sanders responded. "You gotta run all over the country to talk about the need for health care for all people, for raising the minimum wage to a living wage, to deal with the issues of climate change and a woman's right to choose."
Vermonters, it appears, seem to agree with Sanders. According to a recent VPR poll, 60 percent of likely voters support him, while only 19 percent favor Zupan. Even among Republicans, Sanders was backed by 21 percent to Zupan's 50 percent. State-by-state polls conducted by Morning Consult have regularly shown that Sanders is more popular in Vermont than any other senator is in his or her home state.
"Every now and then, you hear a few people mumbling, 'I wish he'd spend more time at home,'" said Vermont Democratic Party chair Terje Anderson. "But I think people in general are really proud of having a role in the national discussion."
Sanders' newfound national prominence is an asset to the Vermont organizations and causes he has long championed. Those include the state's Federally Qualified Health Centers, which provide subsidized medical care to those who can't afford it.
"Having that national platform, Sen. Sanders has really brought to the forefront the sensibility, the critical access, the cost-effectiveness and the power of the work of FQHCs," said Community Health Centers of Burlington CEO Alison Calderara. "And I very much appreciate that."
Said AARP Vermont state director Greg Marchildon, "He's been a champion of entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare and a strong protector of them and a believer in them."
While Sanders spends less time in Vermont than he used to, Sheldon dairy farmer Bill Rowell argued that the senator's field staffers have helped him keep his finger on the pulse. "It works sort of like a big farm, for example," Rowell said. "If you're a good manager, you can make it work."
Over the past six years, Sanders has had limited success turning his policy proposals into law, but his allies note that few liberals have in the Trump era. Republicans have controlled the House for all six years, the Senate for four and the White House for two.
Weaver argued that many of Sanders' biggest victories, including his recent, successful effort to pressure Amazon into raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour, "didn't happen in the halls of Congress." Unlike some senators, who excel at "backroom deal-making and legislative sausage-making," said Lofy, Sanders strives to be "a tireless, relentless advocate and to be outspoken and serve as a voice of conscience."
In the long run, that could result in significant legislative achievements. After his 2016 run, 16 fellow senators — including other White House hopefuls, such as Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — signed on to Sanders' Medicare-for-all bill. Even if one of them defeats him in the 2020 primary, his agenda could still advance.
Sanders has also leveraged his popularity to support like-minded candidates across the country. Soon after his appearance in Williston, the senator set off on a nine-state tour to campaign for congressional, gubernatorial and down-ballot Democrats from Wisconsin to Arizona. He announced this week that he would make additional trips to Maryland, Florida and New Hampshire before Election Day.
Media accounts of Sanders' latest national tour described an enthusiasm that resembled the height of Sanders' 2016 campaign. "He touched my hand," the Denver Post quoted one young woman saying at a University of Colorado rally. "He touched my hand!"
During Sanders' first stop in Indiana, video went viral of him leading an impromptu march of hundreds to a Bloomington polling place. Brian Peters, campaign manager for Indiana congressional candidate Liz Watson, told Seven Days that Watson had invited Sanders to the state "to give a little boost to the students."
"We wanted to get somebody in who could really get people excited, who could get [get-out-the-vote] shifts signed up," Peters said.
Sanders' cross-country campaigning has also advanced his own ambitions. He visited the early presidential primary states of Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada; met with delegates and interest groups; and test-drove the digital and advance teams that could serve a future presidential campaign.
Not everyone welcomed Sanders with open arms. In South Carolina, according to the Associated Press, one Democratic official called his visit "extremely selfish," and another said that he should "get lost." In the Wisconsin congressional district represented by retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Republican nominee Bryan Steil has tied Democratic opponent Randy Bryce to Sanders, calling him "radical Randy."
But Bryce campaign manager David Keith told Seven Days that the move would only backfire. "I think Sen. Sanders gets us votes, and Bryan Steil is foolish to think otherwise."
Bryce, who has said that Sanders' 2016 campaign inspired him to run for Congress, has been a major beneficiary of the senator's support. The Vermonter has visited his district three times this year, most recently last week.
To Alison Nihart, who chairs the board of the Vermont- and New Hampshire-based advocacy group Rights & Democracy, the cross-country campaigning is evidence that Sanders is fulfilling his 2016 commitment to launch a "political revolution" of like-minded liberals.
"I think he's utilized the momentum that he gained during his presidential bid to really walk the talk," she said. "It's not about just one person, one personality. It's about a whole movement of people getting involved at the local level and pushing for policies that will benefit Americans."