Sanders refocuses on progressive supporters in Michigan

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Detroit — Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders is trying to regain the outsider momentum that helped him pull an upset in Michigan's 2016 primary as more candidates vie for the state's progressive voters.

Last month, the U.S. senator from Vermont scored the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat who is a fellow self-declared democratic socialist. Tlaib became the third member of "The Squad" — four progressive House female lawmakers of color — to formally back Sanders.

"She embodies everything that progressive politics is," said Sanders volunteer Bridget Huff of St. Clair County. said.

People standing behind the stage cheer while Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks.

"She gets death threats," Huff added of Tlaib. "She’s not afraid to take on the centrist Democratic establishment.”

Sanders' Michigan campaign has been relying on a network of passionate volunteers, like Huff, many of whom have stuck with him since 2016.  As of June 30, Sanders led the Democratic field in money raised from Michigan and the number of donors from the state, according to a campaign finance data analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

In the latest disclosure period, from July through September, Sanders reported raising $259,408 more from Michigan donors who gave at least $200 — more than any other Democratic candidate reported. Numbers on contributors who gave less than $200 won't come until January 2020.

But Sanders skeptics have emphasized that Sanders was the lone alternative to the left of eventual nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016. When Michigan primary voters go to the polls on March 10, Sanders may have to compete with a crowd of progressive candidates to recapture the insurgent spirit he found four years earlier.

"You can only be a virgin once in politics," argued Joe DiSano, a Democratic political consultant in Michigan and a Sanders critic. "You get your free shot and then you’re burdened with it."

Supporter listen while Democratic presidential candidate and senator, Bernie Sanders speaks.

Sanders was back in Michigan on Oct. 27 for a Detroit rally, where musician Jack White performed and Tlaib gave her endorsement.

Kyle Kondik, a campaign expert at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said he wondered how much organizational heft Tlaib, a first-term member of the U.S. House and an outsider candidate in her own district, could give the Sanders campaign.

"That said, Sanders is already the choice of outsider Democrats and younger Democrats, and he’s bolstered that image with the endorsements from Tlaib and other outsider, democratic socialist House members," Kondik added.

The age issue

Sanders received few big name endorsements from Michigan officeholders ahead the state's March 8, 2016, presidential primary. Still, he won all but 10 of Michigan’s 83 counties in his 49.8%-48.2% victory over Clinton, who went on to win the Democratic nomination but lose to Trump in the November general election.

The Oct. 15, 2019, Democratic presidential debates hosted by CNN/New York Times at Otterbein University.

Sanders is now 78 years old, and some critics have focused attacks on his age and his health. In early October, a heart attack temporarily sidelined him from the campaign trail.

Diana Burton, a Trump supporter from Shelby Township, called Sanders an "old man" during a protest outside the Sanders rally in Detroit. But Burton said she was more concerned about Sanders' left-wing stances than his age.

In interviews leading up to the rally, core supporters of Sanders in Michigan brushed off concerns about his health and argued that if people want someone different than the current president, Sanders is Trump's opposite.

"The reality is, how many people have heart attacks”?" asked Elayne Petrucci of Newport. "How many people who are much, much, much younger have heart attacks?"

Petrucci is a lead organizer of the group Metro Detroit for Bernie. She and Kelly Collison of Lansing, former chairwoman of the Michigan Democratic Party’s Progressive Caucus, are two high-profile Sanders supporters in Michigan.

While Sanders may have lost some backers to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, most have stuck with him, Petrucci said.

"Four years ago, we were an underdog. It didn’t seem like we had a shot, but we were really trying," Collison said. "Now, we really do have a shot."

Sanders in 'decent position'

Adrian Hemond, a Democrat who’s co-founder of the bipartisan consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, said Sanders is in a “decent position” in Michigan ahead of 2020. Many Democratic voters in Michigan have already voted for Sanders once, and voting is a "habitual behavior," Hemond said. Plus, Sanders has a dedicated group of hardcore supporters who could be a benefit in a crowded primary race.

But Hemond noted that the 2020 primary race in Michigan will be much different than 2016 because there will be more candidates — at least 14 hopefuls remain in the field. Voters who want a progressive candidate in 2020 will likely have a choice between Sanders and Warren, Hemond said, instead of just having Sanders as they did in 2016.

Warren's Michigan campaign has already locked up support from some big names in state politics, including former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, former U.S. Rep. David Bonior and U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township.

Mark Brewer

Warren may be able to win over voters who backed Sanders in 2016, said Bonior, a Macomb County politician who served in the U.S. House for more than two decades. She also has her own supporters who back her "reform agenda," he added. 

Another potential advantage Warren has over Sanders is she's a woman, Bonior argued.

"All you have to do is look at the 2018 results in Michigan," he said, noting that female Democrats won races for governor, attorney general and secretary of state last year.

Some Sanders volunteers in Michigan said they were even concerned about the time and money Warren has already invested here. Huff, the volunteer from St. Clair County, said she wants to see Sanders set up an official state campaign office.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is also expected to be a Michigan contender and is considered to have strong support among the state's African American voters, especially in Detroit. He also has the backing of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who lunched with the Delaware Democrat and local Muslim leaders in Dearborn before the late July debates in the city. 

Another Democratic candidate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, has made a play for Detroit voters, making a week of mostly quiet visits around the late July debates in the Motor City. But her campaign has since faltered as she laid off dozens of staffers in the past week and focused her efforts on Iowa.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has ties to Michigan and his campaign reported raising the second largest amount of money from Michigan donors from July through September. State donors who gave at least $200 contributed $240,483 to Buttigieg's campaign over that time, according to disclosures.

Influence of Iowa, N.H.

A difference between the 2016 and 2020 primaries are new election rules in Michigan that expand access to absentee voting, said DiSano, the owner of Lansing-based DiSano Strategies.

Michigan primary voters could have their absentee ballots in late January as voters in Iowa and New Hampshire prepare to weigh in on the race. That means the candidate who makes headlines by winning Iowa could get a larger boost in Michigan.

“This is going to be a much more national primary in the early stages than people give it credit for," DiSano said.

But Abdul El-Sayed, who ran for governor of Michigan as a progressive outsider in 2018, emphasized that many Michigan Democrats have already voted for Sanders once.

"There’s something about people voting for you once that really does matter a lot," said El-Sayed, who was endorsed by Sanders.

El-Sayed’s gubernatorial campaign shared a handful of staffers with Sanders' presidential campaign. Some, like Claire Sandberg, El-Sayed’s deputy campaign manager, went from the Sanders 2016 campaign to the El-Sayed 2018 campaign and then back to the Sanders 2020 campaign.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2018, makes his way down Woodward, which is closed for the Democratic presidential debates.

El-Sayed hasn’t endorsed yet in the 2020 race, but he noted that Sanders has helped drive the political conversation among Democratic presidential candidates.

Antonia Kidd of Davison, a Sanders volunteer who is part of the group called Flint for Bernie and a single mother of five children, says while she won’t pay for cable TV, she is willing to contribute $5 a month to the Sanders presidential campaign.

"The only difference I see between this year and last election, in terms of his volunteer base, is we started earlier," Kidd said.