Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn Washington, the road almost never taken Don't let partisan politics impede Texas' economic recovery The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats argue price before policy amid scramble MORE (I-Vt.) is in damage control mode following allegations of sexual harassment in his 2016 campaign, as he weighs a second presidential campaign.
Sanders is seeking to make changes to his campaign team to show it won’t be run the same way as in 2016 to get the controversy behind him.
On Wednesday, he is set to meet in Washington with former staffers who allege they were harassed. That meeting will follow two public apologies from Sanders.
“To the women on my 2016 campaign who were harassed or mistreated, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for speaking out. I apologize,” Sanders said in a tweet Thursday with an attached statement.
“We can’t just talk about ending sexism and discrimination. It must be a reality in our daily lives. That was clearly not the case in 2016.”
To show he’s taking matters seriously, Sanders has paid for the air fare and lodging for the alleged victims he’ll meet with on Wednesday.
Allies say Sanders needed to act quickly to address the issue, which some say was clearly an attempt to keep him from running in what is expected to be a crowded field.
“I think that some people are using or will use the sexual harassment issue to try to derail his campaign,” said Bill Press, the talk show host who served as a surrogate on Sanders’s 2016 campaign. “I think he’s responding in all the right ways.”
Another source close to Sanders, 77, said the senator knows he has “got to address it head on.”
“It’s a serious, serious issue,” the source said. “You need to make sure everyone knows you have a robust policy — and I mean robust with big changes — and make sure you make big improvements and hire people that make it known it’s not a Bernie Bro show over there.”
The allegations created a distraction for Sanders as he makes a decision about whether he intends to run for a second time.
Polls suggest he would be a formidable candidate in a Democratic primary after his strong showing in 2016, when he finished second to Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats worry negative images are defining White House Heller won't say if Biden won election Whitmer trailing GOP challenger by 6 points in Michigan governor race: poll MORE in a tiny field of candidates.
Last month, Sanders topped all of his potential competitors in a poll of liberal grass-roots activists conducted by Democracy for America. In the survey, Sanders held a strong lead, with 36 percent. Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHaiti prime minister warns inequality will cause migration to continue Pelosi: House must pass 3 major pieces of spending legislation this week Erdoğan says Turkey plans to buy another Russian defense system MORE came in second, with 15 percent.
The Vermont Independent enjoys strong name recognition and has a loyal army of followers hoping he can win the presidency in 2020.
Yet Sanders also faces real challenges in the new race beyond those emanating from the sexual harassment allegations against a former aide.
Unlike in 2016, Sanders will have competition on the left in a Democratic primary from progressives such as Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenIn Washington, the road almost never taken Senate poised to battle over Biden's pick of big bank critic Treasury says more rental aid is reaching tenants, preventing evictions MORE (Mass.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTwo 'View' hosts test positive for coronavirus ahead of Harris interview Rep. Karen Bass to run for mayor of Los Angeles: report Biden taps big bank skeptic to for top regulatory post MORE (Calif.), among other likely candidates. Both of those candidates are also Democrats, potentially a plus in a primary against Sanders, who is not a member of the Democratic Party.
Warren has already launched an exploratory committee, while Harris is widely expected to enter the race in the coming weeks.
A source close to Sanders said the senator needs to keep his 2016 supporters.
“He can win the nomination if he keeps them. The big question is, do they go right back to him? Or do they feel like they need someone different?” the source said.
Asked if Warren could take away some of his support, Larry Cohen, the chairman of Our Revolution — the grass-roots group that sprang from Sanders’s 2016 campaign — who served as a senior adviser to Sanders, said Sanders doesn’t look at it like that.
“Bernie wouldn’t say it that way. He’d say, ‘She’s carrying a similar torch and hopefully one of us gets nominated,’ ” Cohen said.
In 2016, Sanders won support from millennial progressives who packed high school gymnasiums, contributed small donations and became part of his so-called revolution.
The question is how badly the Sanders brand has been damaged by the allegations against it in the “Me Too” era.
“Is it enough? Maybe not,” Press, who is also a columnist for The Hill, said of the Sanders effort so far. “The ‘Me Too’ movement is so powerful, almost anyone who is touched with that brush is tainted and will always be. Even if it doesn’t involve Bernie himself, I don’t know if anyone totally recovers.”
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’s campaign manager during the 2016 race, confirmed last week that he would not return to a potential campaign in the same role.
He told The New York Times that the 2016 Sanders campaign was “too white” and “too male.”
“Would this be a priority to remedy on any future campaign? Definitely, and we share deeply in the urgency for all of us to make change,” Weaver told the Times.
Sources say Sanders is also looking to hire staff to work on his nascent 2020 bid. A Politico story this week said Sanders is trying to “lock down” former digital staffers who helped him in his race against Clinton. He is also in talks with the media production company that worked with rising Democratic star Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDon't let partisan politics impede Texas' economic recovery Ocasio-Cortez explains 'present' vote on Iron Dome Dingell fundraises off Greene altercation on Capitol steps MORE (D-N.Y.).
Cohen said he realizes the challenges of going up against other progressives in this election cycle but said should Sanders choose to run, he has a strong narrative building on what he started in 2016.
“To me, it’s more about ‘What are we building? What do we want to change? What is our vision and who can lift that up?’ ”