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

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

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.

“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.”

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.”

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 08/25/2017 - 12:41 pm.

    Not mostly Dems…only Dems

    Had to chuckle at the comment about supporting mostly Dems, as it has been only Dems that have been supported.
    Considering the complete lack of focus by repubs for the people, there’s no reason a Bernie organization would support them.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/25/2017 - 02:17 pm.


      I think they are referring to Greens, Democratic Socialists, etc.

    • Submitted by Trakar Shaitanaku on 08/25/2017 - 03:35 pm.

      “…the comment about supporting mostly Dems, as it has been only Dems that have been supported…”

      Let me preface my reply with the understanding that my familiarity with the daily processes and discussions among the our revolution staffing and members in Minnesota is extremely limited with many holes, but as far as the national organization, and in particular the western states groups, engaging, recruiting and supporting diverse candidates and voters spreads from the far left of political persuasion to the Independent and the moderate across all party and most ideological divides. It is a Progressive movement, which means that many if not most of the candidates and supporters come from traditional shelter of the Democratic party, even if that party (in general) has become far too corporatist and neocon-ish, over the last 3 decades or so. It sounds like you need to engage your local our revolution leaders in a discussion of precisely what their (and your) ideas and concerns about the movement and its actions are if you are unsure or unhappy with what is going on.


  2. Submitted by Tom Clark on 08/25/2017 - 01:50 pm.

    A question

    What exactly is this piece? A report? An editorial? A vague sentiment? It’s hard to tell.

    My own opinion is that I’m hoping the “Abide! Abide!” nonsense the most zealous DFLers like to engage in when it comes to candidate endorsements is avoided next year, as it divides the party instead of uniting it. Let the voters in the primary decide, not the party insiders.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/25/2017 - 03:49 pm.


    Sanders, like Trump, offers easy solutions to hard problems.
    His numbers don’t add up.
    I’m his age, and a fellow Noo Yawka with a similar background, and I’d like to like him, but I can’t. I’d have a beer and an argument with him, but not vote for him.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/01/2017 - 11:16 am.


      These “declarations” regarding the feasibility of Sanders and his agenda keep coming from those who couldn’t imagine Hillary Clinton losing, despite the fact that she was the most unpopular and distrusted candidate they had. I suspect that HRC is the most disliked and distrusted candidate Democrats have ever put on a presidential ballot. Post election polls as recent as July 19 reveal that Sanders or Biden would likely defeat Trump by 12-13 points in 2020 (and would have in 2016) while fewer than 50% of Americans would rather see Clinton in the White House than Trump (Clinton’s margin is 7 points- 49% compared to Trumps 42% while 53% would rather see Obama in the White House compared to Trumps 40%).

      Setting aside the unpopularity of Clinton, and looking at the “numbers”, it was always been clear that contrary to the beliefs of elite neoliberal Democrats who supported HRC, Sanders’s initiatives are more realistic in terms of actually producing results. His mechanisms for financing a trillion dollars for infrastructure, paying for college tuition, and providing universal health insurance while reigning in health care costs are all far more feasible (and popular) than those that the Clinton team and neo-liberal Democrats endorsed. Clinton has never produced a health care plan that would provide universal coverage, and attempts to “tweak” Obamacare might improve conditions around the edges for some people but they could never accomplish the health care goals that Americans are now demanding. Likewise Clinton’s plans to turn infrastructure spending and college tuition’s over to Wall Street bankers are far more fanciful than anything Sanders’s has proposed.

      Sanders for instance would raise a trillion dollars for infrastructure by collecting tax revenue, that’s how the US has always financed large infrastructure. Clinton on the other hand planned to have Wall Street financiers create a new infrastructure bank, which would take something like $50 billion tax dollars and “leverage” it into a trillion dollars. The idea that such neoliberal fantasies are more “realistic” or even just more likely to be enacted by a Republican congress is ridiculous.

      Neoliberal Democrats like to claim that a Sanders presidency would have been dead on arrival but it’s beyond facile to assume that Clinton would have fared better. Like Trump, Clinton would have entered the White as the most unpopular and distrusted president in US history. She would have faced monumental and unified resistance from a Republican Congress with no prospect of ever breaking the stalemate. No doubt a small percentage of American’s would have enjoyed watching Clinton ongoing defiance, it would have been like four years of Benghazi testimony! The problem is that mere defiance, no matter how spectacular, would not likely have gotten much if anything accomplished.

      At the end of the day those Democrats who always lean away from liberal initiatives and towards conservative (i.e. “centrist”) policies do so simply because they’re not liberals, not because they have a superior grasp of political reality and possibility. The danger of letting such people decide who your candidates should be is that you’ll lose elections to guys like Donald Trump, Tim Pawlenty, and Jesse Ventura, not to mention two Bush’s and Reagan.

      Here’s a link to the July 19 Public Policy Poll I’m referencing:

  4. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 08/25/2017 - 04:18 pm.

    Amen – let the primary voters decide!!

  5. Submitted by Keith McLain on 08/25/2017 - 05:04 pm.


    To be clear, Tina Liebling is the only candidate running for Minnesota Governor that endorsed Bernie Sanders in the caucus of 2016.

    Tina always has the courage of her conviction and stands up for the progressive values that the DFL works towards. I think it is going to take that kind of bravery and backbone to stand up for the people of Minnesota now and in the future. You can find her at the State Fair and talk to her at the DFL booth, she is going to be there a lot!

  6. Submitted by Tim Smith on 08/25/2017 - 08:36 pm.

    In a statewide race

    It all comes down to the party parting from race identity n socialistt politics. The pary’s best shot is Walz. Dont screw it up.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/26/2017 - 09:20 am.

    We’ll see what happens

    I”m not encouraged to see a Democrat STILL claiming that Trump is their “unifying” force. Democrats have to unify around something, not just against something. I think the only truly successful agenda Democrats can unify around is a liberal agenda, like the one Sanders’s supporters are promoting.

    I’m still seeing weird attacks on Sanders and his supporters by Clinton supporters. I can understand why they want so desperately to blame someone else for Clinton’s defeat; but these ongoing attacks are counter productive, dishonest, and riddled with garbage analysis and information.

    I don’t know what kind of percentage of Democrats these folks represent but in general there still seems to be a tendency to dismiss liberal agenda’s within the DFL in favor of imaginary “centristism”. Democrats have to acknowledge the force, clarity, and popularity of the Sanders agenda. They also have to acknowledge the power of his campaign model in terms of fundraising, messaging, connecting with voters, and turning out voters.

    When Democrats talking about “uniting” it’s absolutely critical that they understand they cannot “unite” around NOT being something, or around an agenda of status quo centrism.

    • Submitted by Arthur Swenson on 08/28/2017 - 09:01 am.

      DFL Platform


      !!! YOU NAILED IT !!!

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/28/2017 - 05:16 pm.


      I’ll spare you the more incendiary parts of the debate here about who is attacking who, and will simply remind you that Sanders lost the primaries by millions of votes. His down-ticket acolytes (newcomers, not safe incumbents like Ellison who picked up the Sanders mantle) did terribly, and the single payer vote in Colorado got overwhelmingly rejected.

      I agree that being anti-Trump is not enough, but its far from clear that the answer is for the Democrats to adopt the Sanders agenda. You aren’t really uniting if uniting just means that everyone has to do it your way. Uniting involves compromise – the centrists can’t win without the left and the left can’t win without the centrists. You have to find something that will maximize the votes from each wing of the party.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/29/2017 - 10:58 am.


        Yes, we all know that Democrats put Clinton on the ticket, but Clinton lost the election and the “down-ticket” boost her supporters promised never materialized. Democrats with the exception of mayoral contests, LOST big in 2016 and are now the in the weakest position they’ve been in decades. It would have been better for Democrats to have put their strongest candidate on the ballot and THAT inability to recognize and nominate the best candidates is basically what we’re trying to sort out. It’s not about Clinton per se, it’s about the mentality and process that put a clearly unpopular and widely distrusted candidate at the top of the Democratic ticket.

        Note: Sanders at the moment is the most popular politician in America while Hillary Clinton remains one of the most unpopular. If Clinton had been elected, she rather than Trump would have been the most unpopular president to enter office. So I think it is actually pretty clear that a popular liberal agenda based on the Sanders model (not necessarily Sanders himself) is the best agenda to adopt.

        Colorado is one state, and a clear majority of Americans support single payer.

        As for finding the center between the centrist and progressives, that’s actually where Sanders lives. Sanders’s agenda isn’t really THAT progressive, and it certainly isn’t “leftist” by any stretch of the imagination. The Sanders agenda only LOOKS “leftist” from the perspective of a Democrats who are moderate Republicans… i.e. “centrists”, but that’s a distorted perspective that has made Republicans the most powerful political Party in America. The “Sanders” agenda, i.e. progressive taxes, living wages, single payer (via expanding Medicare to everyone), affordable if not free daycare, affordable if not free college tuition’s, racial and gender equality, etc. are basic basic basic liberal agendas descended from FDR’s New Deal, not Karl Marx’s manifesto. The idea that the countries ideological “center” lay between moderate Republicans (Democrats who reject liberal agendas) and reactionary Republicans is fatuous. Democrats simply need to recognize THAT fact. It’s not about compromise, it’s about being a liberal party because a) American voters clearly want a liberal alternative (Hence Sanders’s popularity) and b) We already have one Republican Party, converting Democrats into a second one has obviously been a fail for the Party AND the Nation.

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/31/2017 - 09:51 pm.

    I am with you twice ….

    Paul. The Democrats need a real alternative speaking about what the goals for progress which will serve us all must be. I saw Bernie speaking a brief moment ago saying some of the same things he was saying well at least two years ago. His agenda may sound shallow and easy when it is measured against the standards the mess we are in have given us. He is also asking for new standards of measurements to help us look beyond the past. Or maybe something like common good was the past. Opps. At any rate It is time to shift this thing to the brief period in history when a progressive helpful tax code was seen as a good for all. The days of hyper capitalism in the world of climate disruption just is not working. We must regrow paradise and tear down the parking lot.

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