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Why Bernie Sanders matters so much to the Minnesota governor’s race

Organizers are trying to translate the support Sanders got in Minnesota in 2016 into electoral influence — and setting their sights on the race for Minnesota governor. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders greeting supporters after a campaign rally in St. Paul on January 26, 2016.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

Across Minnesota, they packed elementary and high school gymnasiums and apartment building lobbies, standing in massive lines that snaked from front doors all the way down the block. 

On March 1, 2016, Minnesota Democratic caucus-goers nearly broke turnout records to vote for their preferred candidate for president of the United States, and their pick was decisive: U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders won the state DFL caucuses with 61 percent of the vote over Hillary Clinton.

Clinton went on to secure the Democratic nomination, of course, and to ultimately lose the race to now-President Donald Trump. But the passion for Sanders in Minnesota, much of it from first-time activists, has lingered on. And now some organizers are trying to translate that support into action on behalf of other candidates and issues throughout the state.  

Sanders’ backers have flocked to groups like the Minnesota chapter of Our Revolution, a political organization born directly out of the Sanders presidential campaign. They made a splash at the Minneapolis mayoral endorsing convention in July, backing a slate of successful candidates for the Minneapolis Park Board endorsement and giving DFL state Rep. Raymond Dehn’s campaign for mayor a big boost.

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“Bernie specifically asked us to get involved in the political process, to make sure people are getting elected at every level: the city council, township board, dog catcher, whatever it is,” said Jake Sanders, who lives in Glenwood, Minnesota and took his first job as a paid political organizer to run Sanders’ operation in North Dakota last year (and no, he is not related to Bernie). “We are really engaged at the local level, and that’s where we are going to take a lot of our energy.” 

They’re also setting their sights on the race for Minnesota governor — even if they first have to show they can rally and organize support beyond the Twin Cities’ urban core. 

Looking for an outsider 

Sanders’ campaign for president had a clear us-versus-them theme, pushing back on corporations, special interests, dark money and the political elite. He talked about the economy and jobs, high incarceration rates and encouraged political revolution. 

Those were ideas that appealed to many in a year that turned out well for candidates with outsider messages, and it’s not surprising it resonated with voters in Minnesota, a state that elected former pro-Wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor and progressive underdog Democrat Paul Wellstone to the U.S. Senate. 

Technically, Our Revolution doesn’t align with any political party, but their track record has mostly included support for Democrats. And Sanders’ influence in Minnesota has already been felt, shifting the tone on the DFL side of the governor’s race. More and more, candidates are talking about dark money, single-payer health care and the economy while talking about giving government back to average Minnesotans.

Looking ahead to the 2018 governor’s race, many Sanders supporters are still trying to figure out which candidate governor they want to support, while others are hoping to see new faces or recruits brought into the mix. Our Revolution has made no official endorsement in the race.

“Bernie had a vision of what we needed to do and talking about how the economy is rigged, and ordinary people are having a really tough time making it,” said DFL Rep. Tina Liebling, an early supporter of Sanders campaign for president who is now running for governor. “For many people it was never about Bernie Sanders the person, it was about Bernie Sanders, the candidate who was giving voice to those people.”

But Liebling is hardly the only candidate touching on Bernie-esque themes. Jake Sanders has already been plucked by the gubernatorial campaign of DFL State Auditor Rebecca Otto, for whom he’s working as field director. Otto’s been courting several new political organizations in her campaign for governor, including Our Revolution and members of the Donald Trump resistance group Indivisible.

“She talks about the politics of greed, getting dark money, also some of these really core issues that we know have to change and have to be addressed,” Jake Sanders said. “All of us are looking for someone really similar, we want somebody whose actions match their words and whose record matches what they are saying.”

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Repairing a ‘cleave’ in the party

Our Revolution has shown its muscle in municipal races, but its ability to organize statewide is still untested. In order to make an impact in the governor’s race, the former Sanders supporters need to flood precinct caucuses across the state next spring and get their delegates to the state endorsing convention in June. The group is currently trying to organize local chapters of Our Revolution in cities across the state, with a meeting planned in Alexandria, Minnesota next month.

One of the lingering questions for old-school DFLers is how new factions like Our Revolution will work with other activists to win elections next fall. The last election was marked with plenty of clashes and tensions between Clinton and Sanders supporters, and despite working together in the final stretch of the campaign, there are still residual hard feelings after Trump won the race. 

Ken Martin, chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, was a Clinton supporter in the 2016 election, but he’s made plenty of efforts to bring all factions together for the next cycle in Minnesota. The party has hired Alyse Maye Quade as the party’s first-ever political and organizing director, a job that’s aimed at unifying traditional DFL labor and other allies with groups that cropped up during and immediately following the election. 

“There was clearly a huge cleave in the party after the 2016 election and that cleave is quickly dissipating each every day,” Martin said. “There’s no one that’s unifying the Democratic Party more than Donald Trump.”

Having the party unified and motivated is critical in 2018 and 2020, Martin said, if Democrats want to avoid the overconfidence that plagued Democrats in the last election. Many activists assumed Trump would never win and many liberals stayed home in the last election, partially because of divisions within the party.

“I worry about a similar overconfidence in 2018,” he said. “That we assume because we’ve got the wind at our back and Tump is unpopular that we don’t have to work that hard.”