Sanders shores up Dem superdelegate support

Sanders shores up Dem superdelegate support
© Stefani Reynolds

Almost a year after Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE beat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign Nevada Senate passes bill that would give Electoral College votes to winner of national popular vote 2020 Dems break political taboos by endorsing litmus tests MORE, a group of about 20 Democratic National Committee (DNC) members met on the sidelines of the committee’s meeting in Las Vegas. The Bird Caucus, as they called themselves, represented a new faction within the DNC — a group of new members who owed their seats to their support for a committed outsider, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues Lee, Sanders introduce bill to tax Wall Street transactions MORE (I-Vt.).

The group took its name in a nod to a bird that landed on Sanders’s podium as he spoke at a rally in Portland, Ore., in 2016.

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Now, as Sanders mounts a second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, his campaign has something it did not have a few years ago, when his insurgent campaign unexpectedly caught fire: Allies in the very heart of the Democratic Party who could make a difference should the nomination go to a second ballot.

In 2016, Sanders and his supporters railed against the influence of superdelegates within the DNC, those who had a vote at the national convention by virtue of their positions within the party, rather than because of the will of any voter.

During the bitter 2016 primary between Clinton and Sanders, Clinton won the nomination on the strength of her showing among pledged delegates — those elected by voters — but it rankled Sanders that the unelected superdelegates broke disproportionately to Clinton’s campaign.

Clinton won about 90 percent of the DNC members choosing between the two front-runners, and about three-quarters of all DNC members.

In the course of that primary campaign, Sanders fans from across the country ran for and won party offices. In the years since, Sanders’s outside group, Our Revolution, backed a number of other candidates for party offices. Those new DNC members led the charge to change Democratic Party rules to limit the influence of superdelegates.

“We began to meet with a lot of people before our events and different things, and we encouraged them to get involved, both in our campaigns and in the party,” said Shannon Jackson, Sanders’s northeastern regional director who ran Our Revolution after the 2016 campaign. “It’s the way that we can get people involved in a whole variety of things, whether you’re involved in the party or in local campaigns.”

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Next year, when the party meets to pick its nominee in Milwaukee, reforms spearheaded by Sanders backers will relegate superdelegates to the sidelines on the first ballot.

But if the party fails to pick a nominee on the first ballot, those superdelegates will be allowed to weigh in — and if it comes to a second ballot, Sanders may find a well of support among that group that did not exist in 2016.

“If it goes to a second ballot, we come roaring back in,” said one Sanders backer now on the DNC, who asked for anonymity to describe the group of Sanders backers.

A review of the more than 300 superdelegates on the DNC who would get a vote on the second ballot shows about 50 of them have ties to Sanders. Some were Sanders delegates elected to the 2016 convention. Others volunteered on the campaign. And some won their local offices with support from Our Revolution.

By contrast, Sanders earned 33 endorsements from DNC members who were not also members of Congress during his 2016 campaign.

“There was a significant number of folks who supported Sen. Sanders in 2016 who now hold positions within the party at every level,” said Ray McKinnon, a DNC member from North Carolina who won his seat after volunteering for Sanders in 2016. “There isn’t a secret handshake, but there is a network of Bernie Sanders delegates.”

But interviews with half a dozen Sanders-connected DNC members show past support is no guarantee of a future endorsement. McKinnon, for one, said he had pledged not to publicly endorse any candidate during the primary so as not to put a thumb on the scale, which Sanders backers felt superdelegates did for Clinton in 2016.

“I have committed to publicly not announcing who I’m supporting until after our party has picked who the nominee is going to be,” McKinnon said. “The irony is not lost on me, however, that that means that folks like me who in 2016 were strong Sanders supporters are not in a position now to say one way or another where we fall.”

Others said they were open to backing other candidates. Broward County, Florida, Democratic Party Chairwoman Cynthia Busch, who ran as a Sanders delegate in 2016 and represents Florida on the DNC, said she had met with top advisers to Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues MORE (D-Calif.), and with Reps. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) John RyanCNN's O'Rourke town hall finishes behind Fox News, MSNBC GOP faces new challenge in 2020 abortion fight 2020 Democratic presidential candidates rally in support of abortion rights MORE (D-Ohio) and Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellCNN's O'Rourke town hall finishes behind Fox News, MSNBC Biden retains large lead over Sanders, other 2020 Dems in new Hill-HarrisX poll Hickenlooper: Gun owners should be licensed, pass safety test MORE (D-Calif.).

“I’m not with anybody right now. There’s so many people running,” Busch told The Hill.

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign T.I., Charlamagne Tha God advocate for opportunity zones on Capitol Hill Overnight Health Care — Presented by PCMA — CBO officials testify on pros and cons of 'Medicare for All' | Booker vows to form White House office on abortion rights | Measles outbreak spreads with cases now in half the country MORE (D-N.J.) made an impression on several Sanders-connected DNC members from North Carolina when he sat down with them for a private get-to-know-you at the most recent DNC meeting in Washington.

“I’m still on the fence,” said John Verdejo, a 2016 Sanders delegate and DNC member who sat in on that meeting. Verdejo said he had also heard from representatives of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues MORE (D) in recent weeks.

Buttigieg has also made an impression on Jean Lemire Dahlman, a DNC member from Montana who backed Sanders in 2016. Dahlman said she had been underlining sections of his book. She also said she would remain neutral, especially if, as expected, her home-state governor joins the race.

“If Steve Bullock declares, it’s doubly important that I keep an open mind and see how things shake out,” Dahlman said. “We all appreciate what Bernie was able to do. He’s a valuable voice in the Democratic Party.”

Some DNC members who did not align themselves with either candidate in 2016 and remain neutral today said there is an uptick in the number of Sanders backers who sit on the committee, though the size of this year’s field is likely to divide some of those loyalties.

“I think it is fair to say that there is a larger Sanders cohort, if you look at their preferences in 2016, but not necessarily a substantially larger cohort,” said one neutral DNC member, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid the appearance of taking sides. “In terms of 2020, not all of the 2016 Sanders supporters will be with Sanders. There is some splitting of their ranks among progressive candidates with issues similar to those of Sanders.”

Sanders’s advisers are not counting on the superdelegates they so loathed in 2016 to deliver victory this time.

“We’re not trying to do a secret strategy here,” Jackson said. “The senator has been generally trying to make a difference, and we really think our agenda is the best agenda that reflects the values that we’re promoting.”

It remains likely that Democrats will choose their nominee on the first ballot, without the influence of superdelegates. Neither major party has required more than one ballot to pick their nominee since Democrat Adlai Stevenson won on the third ballot in 1952.

“It’s actually a good sign that we’re probably not going to be the deciding factor at the end of the day,” Busch said.