Senate

Sanders goes back to 2016 playbook to sell $3.5T budget

Julia Nikhinson

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is reassembling parts of his old playbook ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, hoping to garner more support for Democrats’ economic agenda in Republican states. 

The Vermont senator is headed to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and West Lafayette, Ind., this week to promote his $3.5 trillion budget, a key part of President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative that would unlock spending on a host of progressive policies.

The Sanders itinerary reflects the liberal stalwart’s confidence that progressive policies can be sold to blue-collar workers, including working-class white voters, a demographic that former President Trump made serious inroads with in 2016 and 2020.

Sanders is targeting conservative, low-turnout areas that Trump easily won in both presidential elections. 

“I want voters in red states, blue states and purple states to understand that Congress will soon be voting on the most significant piece of legislation to benefit working families since the New Deal and the Great Depression, and that not one Republican will vote for it,” Sanders said in a fundraising blast distributed to his email list. 

The decision to wade into the two GOP strongholds was welcomed by the White House.

“The best way to right this ship is to find ways to serve the longstanding needs of the working class,” a source familiar with Sanders’s thinking told The Hill. 

“The more people know it the better,” the source said. “We’ve been doing a pretty extensive level of outreach.”

In 2016 and 2020, Sanders stumped with much enthusiasm and some electoral success in Republican-heavy states and districts, often vigorously telling voters that the federal government can and should do more to meet the needs of low-income individuals. 

To bolster that case, he frequented Fox News and local news outfits in right-wing pockets of the country, a media offensive that he has reinstated to help sell the new budget pitch. Sanders recently penned an op-ed for the Fox News website. In it, he outlined priorities that would be addressed through the reconciliation process, including more equitable access to child care, which Democrats see as generating immense bipartisan support outside of the Beltway. 

“There will be a multi-year extension of the up to $300 a month Child Tax Credit for working families. If you have two kids under 18, that means up to $7,200 a year to help raise your kids,” he wrote, listing some figures behind key aspects of the proposed legislation.    

The upcoming stops in Indiana and Iowa are modeled, in part, around the effectiveness of giving people an immediate economic incentive to vote Democrat. Campaigning explicitly around delivering $1,400 checks through the American Rescue Plan was a big success at the ballot box in Georgia. The twin special election victories by Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) factored into Sanders’s decision to touch down in other traditionally Republican states, according to the source with knowledge of his thinking.

The budget is causing drama in Washington, D.C., where a group of moderates in the House say they will not vote for the blueprint unless the House first votes on a bipartisan infrastructure package backed by Biden and passed by the Senate. Progressives say the budget and budget reconciliation bill must move first, to ensure that centrists back it.

Some progressives believe that Sanders can help bridge a divide between independent, Republican and infrequent voters around the policies included in the budget plan. That thinking is based on the idea that the more people hear about Democrats’ ideas on issues that impact their everyday lives, the more they will be inspired to turn out. 

For that argument to be effective in practice, some in the party say, it is incumbent on Sanders as chairman of the Senate’s influential Budget Committee to present it effectively in person. 

“Red territories will always be tilted towards Republicans if Democrats don’t make the case for our own policies,” said Adam Green, a Democratic strategist who co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

“It’s smart for Bernie to take a very popular economic message that resonates with Republican and independent voters and prove it,” Green said. 

Some Democrats are skeptical that Sanders will be a big asset for the bill and question whether his trip will be effective.

Earlier this month, Sanders campaigned for Nina Turner, his former presidential campaign co-chair, in the Democratic primary to succeed former Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who is now secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While Sanders received attention for his visit, Turner, who had alienated many Democrats with vulgar remarks about Biden, was soundly defeated by a more moderate Democrat, Shontel Brown.

“Ohio has had enough of being the loudest person in the room,” said one Democratic operative from the Buckeye State, speaking about Turner’s loss and Sanders’s role as a high-profile endorser who came to her defense.

The operative emphasized that Sanders has a well-established penchant for “stirring up the anger” and predicted that the finger-pointing mentality could end up backfiring before the midterms. “If he does stir up some trouble, I think you’ll see more distancing from the Democratic Party,” the operative said. 

On Sunday, Sanders will be entering an area where an anticipated battle for two seats is already underway. Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) is contemplating whether to run for Iowa governor or another term in Congress, while Liz Mathis, a state senator, has announced a House bid. 

Republican strategists have sought to capitalize on Sanders’s announcement of an in-person visit. For several years, Sanders has been an easy target on the right. 

And while Republicans have painted even the most moderate Democrats as agents of the far left, Sanders’s presence in Trump country will give some validity to claims that he represents a large swath of the party and has molded its ideology. 

“Our hope is that Cindy Axne and Liz Mathis will join self-avowed socialist Bernie Sanders at his Iowa rally,” Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, told The Hill. “They hold similar values and policy beliefs, so it would make sense for them to campaign together.” 

Tags 2020 presidential election Bernie Sanders Budget budget reconciliation Cindy Axne Donald Trump Indiana Infrastructure Iowa Joe Biden Jon Ossoff Marcia Fudge Progressive movement Raphael Warnock

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