The 2018 electoral map is dotted with Democratic campaigns that closely resemble Bernie Sanders' own unabashedly liberal, anti-establishment presidential candidacy.
But it has markedly fewer candidates who actually supported the progressive champion in 2016.
All across the country this year, many of the progressive heroes of 2018 are running Sanders-style campaigns even though many of them didn’t support Sanders’ presidential bid. It’s a sign of how the senator’s brand of anti-establishment politics and muscular liberalism is now firmly in the mainstream of the Democratic Party — even if many of his actual supporters from 2016 still struggle to run for higher office.
In Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District, for instance, Kara Eastman embraces an unapologetically liberal agenda while taking on the party's political establishment to improbable success. In Texas’s 7th Congressional District Democratic, candidate Laura Moser wants to retrofit the country’s health care system and became a progressive cause celebre after House Democratic leaders tried to sink her campaign earlier this year.
And in New York, Cynthia Nixon emerged as a liberal darling after launching a primary challenge to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, criticizing the incumbent as insufficiently liberal in such a deep-blue state.
All three candidates chose Clinton over Sanders in 2016.
Only about 20 Democratic candidates publicly identify as Sanders supporters — a significant number, but a small one compared to the record number of Democratic candidates running. (In an indication of the continued sensitivity of the 2016 Democratic primary, some campaigns contacted for this story declined to say which presidential hopeful their candidate supported.)
Explanations for the paucity of Sanders supporters running this year vary from a lack of progressive political infrastructure to the importance placed on candidate fundraising. But rather than be disappointed, many Sanders veterans say they are delighted at how House Democratic candidates, even those in battleground districts, have adopted the senator’s ideas.
That’s especially true on health care. One of Sanders' signature policy proposals during the campaign, for example, was his belief in a single-payer health care system, an idea long confined to the fringes of the Democratic Party. Now many of the party's House candidates openly endorse the proposal, such as Leslie Cockburn in Virginia's 5th Congressional District. Cockburn, who unexpectedly won the Democratic nomination at a party convention this spring, supports converting to a single-payer health care system.
Sean Casten, in the suburban Chicago 6th Congressional District of Illinois, also backs a “path to Medicare for all” even if he says people still need to be given a choice to buy into the plan. (Both Cockburn and Casten supported Clinton.)
Even House Democratic candidates who don’t a support single-payer system have still moved to the left on the issue. Reviews of dozens of candidate websites, along with interviews with many of them, show that most support some form of public option buy-in, in Medicare or Medicaid. Nearly all of them describe access to health care as an inalienable right.
It's not just health care; Congressional Democrats last year signed off on a plan to raise the federal minimum wage to $15, a policy once famously part of Sanders’ own agenda.
“You name it, the showcase pieces of Bernie’s platform are a staple of their platforms,” said Shannon Jackson, former executive director of the Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution. “That is because the ideas that the senator have been campaigning on and speaking for the last 40 years have always resonated with the people, but now they’re becoming mainstream. Now candidates are seeing the way they connect with the people.”
Polls show a large increase in support among Democrats for a single-payer system: A survey released last year from the Pew Research Center found 52 percent of Democrats thought the country should have a single national program for health care, up nearly 20 points from the same poll taken three years earlier.
The shift to the left on health care is also likely a consequence of the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare. But whatever is driving the change, it’s now reality for many Democratic candidates that support for a single-payer system can be politically advantageous in the party’s primaries.
“Bernie has shifted the center of gravity so much and activated so much energy on the left that if you’re a candidate who just wants to win, you have to tack to the left,” said Karthik Ganapathy, spokesman the liberal group MoveOn.org.
Of course, not every House Democratic candidate running this year has embraced a Sanders-like agenda. Candidates such as Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania, Dan McCready in North Carolina, and Brendan Kelly in Illinois — all running in key midterm election races — are more moderate in their approaches.
It also isn't surprising that most congressional candidates would have backed Clinton: She did, after all, win a solid majority of the vote during the presidential primary, and performed even better than that in many of the newly purple suburban areas that Democrats are targeting as pickup opportunities this year.
And many Sanders supporters are, in fact, running for office, ranging from Ben Jealous’ gubernatorial campaign in Maryland to the House candidacies of Brent Welder in Kansas to Pete D’Alessandro in Iowa. (D'Alessandro ran Sanders' Iowa campaign in 2016.) Sanders’ own son, Levi Sanders, is running for a House seat in New Hampshire.
Sanders supporters have also run for a fleet of seats down the ballot, and as The Wall Street Journal reported last year, have aggressively sought positions within the Democratic Party.
Still though, former Sanders staffers say there are explanations why many of the campaign’s supporters aren’t running for major office this year. Young people made up one of Sanders’ core constituencies, and most congressional candidates are well into their 30s and 40s by the time they run.
Running for office takes money — the kind of resources Sanders staffers say their supporters don’t necessarily have access to.
For her part, Eastman — who last week defeated an establishment-backed candidate in Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District in a surprise victory — said her policies had less to do with Sanders than her own life experience.
“It’s our own agenda,” she said. “And it’s based on talking to people at the door and people in the community.”
Eastman is a social worker who has written at length explaining her support of single-payer health care, and she rejects the notion that her muscular brand of liberalism is a political liability in the fall.
She also declined to elaborate about why she chose Clinton over Sanders.
“The 2018 landscape for the country has changed so much,” she said. “And right now we need to be unifying the party.”