The long-simmering notion among many grassroots liberals that the national party is in the tank for Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonMnuchin: Trump has 'perfect genes' Live coverage: Trump, GOP scramble for ObamaCare votes RNC paid little-known firm for reports on Clinton: report MORE spilled into public view on Friday, as a nasty fight between Bernie Sanders and the Democratic National Committee tore into the open.
Some liberals have long held that the DNC’s sanctioning of fewer debates this cycle, with half of those debates taking place over a weekend, was an attempt by the national party to shield Clinton from scrutiny and ease the path to the nomination for the prohibitive front-runner.
Some Democrats believe that bringing the hammer down on Sanders — his campaign has been shut off from its own database of voter files until the situation is ironed out — hands grassroots liberals the ammunition they needed in a war they’ve been agitating for.
“From a process standpoint, the DNC may have done the right thing,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, a veteran of Howard Dean’s 2004 insurgent campaign. “From a political standpoint, they played right into Sanders’s hands.”
The Sanders campaign made its position crystal clear in a hastily arranged press conference with reporters outside its headquarters near Capitol Hill on Friday.
“Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign,” said campaign manager Jeff Weaver.
Weaver accused the DNC of “actively attempting to undermine our campaign.”
“Clearly in this case it looks like they are trying to help the Clinton campaign,” he said.
DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) on Friday dug in her heels in an interview on CNN, accusing the Sanders campaign of lying and of seeking to politicize a situation that it brought on itself through wrong-doing.
"The Sanders campaign doesn’t have anything other than bluster to put out there," she declared.
The Sanders campaign late Friday moved forward with a federal lawsuit against the national party to regain access to its files unless the DNC restores it first.
Clinton, whose campaign was silent for more than three hours after Weaver’s statements, took a more aggressive tone in a conference call with reporters on Friday night.
Campaign manager Robby Mook said Sanders campaign staffers may have committed a crime. He argued that the breach ran far deeper than Sanders team has acknowledged, and excoriated his rival for seeking to politicize the issue.
"This is incredibly disappointing,” said Mook. “Someone who said they’d run a different kind of campaign, and their staff stole data from us and is seeking to fundraise off this. It’s very serious and not something to be fundraising off of.”
With that, the battle lines were drawn. National progressive groups are rallying behind Sanders, believing they now have firm evidence of the DNC tipping the scales in favor of Clinton.
“We have been frustrated by the debate schedule, but with this harsh overreaction by the DNC today — it’s not a demonstration of partiality. It’s evidence they don’t care about even looking impartial anymore,“ said Neil Sroka, the spokesman for Democracy for America (DFA), which endorsed Sanders only a day earlier.
The DFA was joined by the progressive group MoveOn.org in calling on the DNC to restore the Sanders campaign’s access to its voter files.
Former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who briefly ran for president this year but dropped out after failing to gain traction in the race, backed the Sanders campaign in the dispute.
“Good for Bernie,” he tweeted. “The DNC is nothing more than an arm for the Clinton campaign.”
Liberals believe the dust-up will provide fuel to the Sanders campaign, which has galvanized the left and has proven to be a fundraising juggernaut, even as Sanders’s appears to have hit a plateau in the race.
"This could give Sanders a boost if the public relations damage is not undone by the Clinton campaign and DNC quickly,” said one official at a leading national progressive group. “Voters don't want a coronation — and by extension, they don't want the fix to be in with the Democratic Party to be sabotaging the insurgent. Voters who are on the fence could rally around Sanders if this isn't undone quickly."
Not all Democrats are so certain.
They marvel that the Sanders campaign has been able to turn its own mistake into a referendum against the national party’s handling of the primary.
“I guess if the DNC hadn’t punished them, they would have just had to have had a press conference apologize for what they did wrong,” Trippi said.
Indeed, the Sanders campaign admitted culpability by firing one of its staffers.
But they blame the DNC’s data vendor for weaknesses in the system, and say they’ve moved aggressively to address the issue internally. In addition, they say they first brought the vulnerability to the DNC’s attention months ago, and that they believe some of their data has been similarly compromised by a rival campaign.
Still, Democratic strategist Steve McMahon says the Sanders campaign has miscalculated by drawing attention to its own wrong-doing when there is plenty of other material available for them to make the case the DNC has stacked the deck against them.
“I understand why they’re frustrated and why they might imagine there’s a conspiracy here, because it looks like there is on every other matter they’ve alleged,” he said. “But this is clear cut. They read and signed an agreement that they ultimately violated. They have to live with the consequences.”
In private conversations, Democrats with establishment credentials say the national party had to act forcefully, to send a message to all candidates running in down-ticket primaries that no monkey business will be tolerated, and because this is how they would have had to react if the Clinton campaign had been accused of the same thing.
That’s the case Waserman Schultz made on CNN.
“I'm confident that this is the decision that they would expect from us and it’s the same decision that we would make if the shoe was on the other foot,” she said.
Meanwhile, many Democrats, eager for party’s turn in the spotlight at Saturday night’s debate, are frustrated that the focus has turned to a controversy they say voters don’t understand and don’t care about.
“The bottom line is this is an unnecessary distraction,” said Democratic consultant Andrew Feldman. “We need to get back to the real issue of this election — what is best path forward for all Americans?”
They largely believe that Friday’s dust-up will soon be an afterthought.
“For voters, it’s a process issue that’s difficult to explain and that probably won’t change many minds in either direction,” said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga.
“It is worth noting that this is what passes for an intra-party blow-up in the Democratic party, as opposed to the Republican Party’s complete dysfunction, death spiral and total inability to deal with Donald Trump’s pro-Fascist campaign.”