Even Our Revolution, the group started by Sanders in 2016, lacks access to his new email list that made him the best Democratic fundraiser this year.
Many of Sanders’ allies were demoralized by what they saw as Our Revolution failing to live up to its potential after his first presidential run. Now, in the wake of a second unsuccessful campaign, some fear they’re witnessing a repeat of the 2016 wreck unfold in real time.
“I feel like I’m in some kind of simulation that’s having a glitch. All of the same things that happened in 2016 are happening over again,” said a former senior aide to Sanders, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “The question is, what do we do now? … There’s just nothing comparable on the left to the Bernie campaign.”
There is already discord over new organizations that have sprouted since Sanders dropped out last month. Several progressives are incensed over a super PAC that longtime Sanders adviser Jeff Weaver created to help elect presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, seeing it as a betrayal of the Vermont senator’s opposition to big-money groups.
Others worry that Once Again, another PAC started by different top aides to amass more Sanders delegates at the National Democratic Convention, is a waste of time since the primary is all but over.
“For the top aide to come out of the gate of the campaign and say, I’m starting a super PAC to persuade Bernie’s grass-roots base to vote for Biden, and Biden has not made any policy promises that would even meet the minimum requirement to earn your adversary’s voters, that’s just a slap in the face,” said Winnie Wong, a former senior adviser for Sanders’ campaign. “A lot of Bernie’s very active base are really enraged and pretty horrified.”
Much of the tension over the future of Sanders’ army stems from what happened at Our Revolution after his first campaign. When Weaver took it over in 2016, most of the staff quit in protest, including some who were opposed to his desire to raise large donations through an independent expenditure.
Then, in the 2018 midterms, Our Revolution flipped zero Republican-held House seats — a fact that moderates pointed to in the presidential primary to portray Sanders and other left-wing candidates as unelectable.
Several aides and allies believe its problems are partly attributable to the lack of a clear direction. According to three former staffers at Our Revolution, the group undertook a months-long process with aides in 2018, led by adviser Max Berger, to chart a more distinct path.
They settled on an ambitious plan: to try to take over the Democratic Party and transform it into a left-wing social democratic party. But board chairman Larry Cohen opposed the idea — believing that it was too similar to the goal of the Democratic Socialists of America — and it was scrapped.
“What we saw after ’16 was a real lack of clarity about what work people should actually do,” said Berger, who went on to join Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign.
Cohen dismissed Our Revolution’s critics, pointing to a 2020 mission plan developed with polling. It lays out three priorities: winning issue fights, building a progressive party and electing more liberals. While the organization didn’t dispute that the group unseated no Republicans in 2018, an aide said about one-third of its endorsed candidates won in the midterms.
Advisers at Once Again said their group is needed to collect enough delegates required to influence the party platform at the convention. They said it formed in part to keep Sanders voters from growing dispirited over the news of Weaver’s super PAC.
Weaver, for his part, argues that an independent expenditure is needed to raise money quickly in the remaining months of the general election. If Biden won and passed into law, say, a $15 hourly minimum wage, it would show voters that the progressive movement can deliver, he said.
“You can’t ask people decade in and decade out to make small-dollar contributions, knock on doors, make phone calls, and text their friends without demonstrating that the movement can have positive, real results,” Weaver said. “If it’s just a sort of left debating society, if it’s just the purity Olympics, we are going to fail miserably.”
While his allies launch and fight over their own PACs, Sanders is still deciding his next steps, according to people close to him.
Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ 2020 campaign manager, said Sanders won’t create a new group, while other former aides said that is a possibility. The Sanders Institute — another organization founded after 2016 by his wife, Jane, and son, which shut down during his 2020 campaign — is expected to return. His new email list has been transferred to the Friends of Bernie Sanders PAC.
In a sign of tension between Sanders and Our Revolution, Cohen said he has not asked for that list and doesn’t know whether he will receive it, despite the fact that the group was given the prized donor data in 2016.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a former campaign co-chair, said he’s told Sanders that he should remain a visible leader of the progressive movement. Sanders, who is 78, seemed to agree, according to other aides.
“Bernie Sanders will continue to be a leader, if not the leader, for tens of millions of people in this country who want to see real progressive change,” said Weaver, who still advises Sanders despite their disagreements over the super PAC.
In recent weeks, Sanders has spent time selecting people to serve on the “unity” policy task forces he formed with Biden in an effort to nudge the presumptive democratic nominee to the left. He also has held numerous online sessions on the coronavirus, worked on progressive legislation, and endorsed and raised money for a slate of liberal candidates — the markings of what Sanders sees as his role now, Shakir said.
After Sanders’ campaign ended, he held a call with thousands of volunteers and allowed groups that endorsed him to make a pitch to them. He also posted on his website a list of groups that he encouraged supporters to join, including the Democratic Socialists of America and Our Revolution.
But many of Sanders’ former aides and allies said they want more direction. Some of his ex-staffers who are members of the DSA are considering sending him a letter to ask him to more vocally encourage his supporters to join the group.
Pamela John, a top volunteer for Sanders, created a petition that called on Sanders to gift his digital assets, including his texting tool and online organizing data, to Our Revolution or another group to elect progressive candidates and support left-wing goals. It was signed by thousands of other volunteers.
“It just seems unthinkable that it would cease,” she said in an interview, referring to Sanders’ volunteer networks.
Others have acted on their own. Former Sanders volunteers in Rhode Island are launching a group next week called Reclaim Rhode Island. There is also still an operating Slack channel of Sanders volunteers, which Once Again and Our Revolution said they have tapped to recruit volunteers absent access to the official data.
Some former aides see Sanders as personally uninterested in managing a legacy grassroots group and unfamiliar with some of the technical details of his 2020 operation’s infrastructure.
“There’s some anxiety within the progressive movement and ‘Sanders world’ that the Sanders Institute and Our Revolution were letdowns after 2016. And people are not sure if Bernie and Jane understand that,” said one former Sanders aide. “The fact that campaign staffers are launching a new PAC every week is a sign that there’s not much intention and strategy from the top going into sustaining the Sanders movement for the long term.”
Shakir said that because the left lacks the institutional infrastructure that moderate Democrats have at their disposal, progressives sometimes expect Sanders to shoulder all of the burden.
“You cannot ask a candidate who had a campaign to be the kind of long-term solution for this,” Shakir said.
Other ideas ex-Sanders staffers and advisers are discussing include forming an alliance of progressive groups to better coordinate, or dedicating a super PAC to left-wing congressional and state candidates who are typically badly outspent by moderates.
Claire Sandberg, Sanders’ former national organizing director, said that one of the biggest problems the left is facing is the lack of an electoral infrastructure that can carry on from campaign to campaign. Utilizing Sanders’ data and organizing network could change that, but progressives should explore other options if he doesn’t want to, she said.
“It’s challenging for insurgent down-ballot campaigns to start from scratch with no networks of progressive volunteers and donors to tap and no data on who the progressive voters in their districts are,” she said. “The simplest way to create that enduring electoral infrastructure would be to not dismantle what already exists.”