DES MOINES, Iowa—At a rally on Friday to endorse his former Iowa campaign coordinator, Bernie Sanders dusted off the stump speech that nearly propelled him to victory here two years ago and added some obligatory references to the man he is backing for a local congressional seat. “Pete D’Alessandro understands that … we need fundamental campaign finance reform,” Sanders told a crowd of about 250 supporters gathered in a converted auto glass shop. “Pete knows that we’re not going to cut Social Security, we’re going to expand Social Security,” he continued, and “Pete understands that we must have … a government that represents all of us, not just the 1 percent.”
But it’s not just Pete. In nearly every contested Democratic primary this year, candidates are straining to sound like the Vermont senator. The party’s new crop of presidential hopefuls is already echoing his applause lines from 2016, threatening to remake the Democratic Party in Bernie’s disheveled image. What that means for Sanders’ voice in the national party—and his 2020 prospects—still remains to be seen.
Here in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, which spans from the state capital west to the Nebraska border and south to the Missouri one, and where six Democrats are vying for the opportunity to unseat Republican Rep. David Young, the progressive choir has made it difficult to distinguish the actual Bernie disciple. All six Democratic candidates are running on a policy agenda similar to Sanders’, and several also have more cash than D’Alessandro, a more compelling personal story to share with voters, or both.
“I think we’d all show up and probably vote the same,” said Eddie Mauro, a former teacher who now runs his own insurance firm and is one of the Democrats vying for the nomination. “If we had a chance to raise the minimum wage, we’re gonna vote to raise the minimum wage. If we had the chance to vote for single-payer health care, we’re all gonna vote for single-payer health care.”
The night before D’Alessandro’s big rally with Bernie, Mauro was making his pitch about two miles north of downtown, to a more modest, living-room gathering of a neighborhood Democratic group. The dozen or so attendees, which included the mayor of Des Moines, did their best to keep the hosts’ five cats off their laps as they listened politely to Mauro’s pitch, before turning to the evening’s main event: a controversial county tax initiative known as Public Measure A.
Mauro told me he caucused for Martin O’Malley in 2016 and later knocked on doors for Hillary Clinton. But he’s now running on a Sanders-style platform of single-payer health care, raising the minimum wage, and zeroing out U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Mauro has invested heavily in his own campaign—to the tune of a $200,000 loan—to hire full-time staff and has already released one policy white paper, on climate change, and says more are on the way. But even that personal investment can’t buy the Bernie brand.
“I mean everybody would love to have Bernie’s endorsement, who wouldn’t?” Mauro told me later as the guests trickled out into a cold and wet night. “I think he’s a well-respected person in our community and he has a great message. I’d love him to come talk for me, but I don’t know him. That’s just how the game goes.”
D’Alessandro, who grew up in a Chicago suburb, is a longtime political operative with a résumé that includes time on the campaigns of Iowa Democrats like Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver and national ones like Bill Bradley. D’Alessandro joined the Sanders team in 2015 to run his campaign in Iowa and then stayed on to work for Bernie in another five states before all was said and done.
D’Alessandro says it was that experience that persuaded him to finally run for office himself, so it was only natural that he’d ask for Sanders’ endorsement. “Bernie Sanders is a pretty loyal human being,” D’Alessandro said in an interview at a local coffee shop the day before the rally. “I did the ask: I just said, ‘Look, I need you to be part of this because I want to be part of this movement moving forward, and you’re the one who got the rest of us in this country thinking about it.’ ”
Sanders has been cautious with his endorsement so far this election cycle. He has personally backed just two other House candidates to date: Jesús “Chuy” García, who ran a Bernie-esque mayoral campaign against Rahm Emanuel in Chicago in 2015 and is now running to replace retiring Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, and Randy Bryce, the union iron worker who has become a progressive darling in his bid to unseat House Speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin. (Our Revolution, the political organization Sanders formed after the 2016 primary, has endorsed a total of 10 House candidates this cycle—including D’Alessandro and García—but Bernie is no longer technically involved in those decisions.) Both García and Bryce were the clear favorites to win their respective nominations even before Sanders stumped on their behalf, making the Iowa race a more interesting barometer for how much a Bernie endorsement can elevate a candidate in 2018.
D’Alessandro declined to get specific about just how much of a bump he had gotten in terms of money and volunteers in the month since Sanders made his endorsement official. (Campaign finance records are not yet available for that period.) But it’s clear that Bernie’s involvement has boosted D’Alessandro’s visibility in the field. His original endorsement was covered widely in the local media, and the state’s largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, and several of the city’s local TV affiliates sent teams to cover the rally on Friday. The campaign also told me its Facebook livestream racked up roughly 45,000 views.
The endorsement certainly seemed to boost D’Alessandro with many of the Sanders faithful who showed up for the rally in Des Moines. “None of the candidates had really broken through just yet,” Zoey McGuire, a young voter who said she caucused for Bernie two years ago, told me before the Des Moines event got underway. “But since Bernie supports this guy, I’m gonna support this guy.”
Ed Hotchkin, a middle-age man wearing a neon-pink Feel the Bern 2020 knit cap he bought on the way into the D’Alessandro rally, said he had “heard the same kinda thing from all the other Democratic candidates, too,” after hearing D’Alessandro speak. But, he said, “Bernie is such a big endorsement, it’s gonna be really hard to lean away from him.”
Others at the rally were keeping their options open. “I was really impressed, Pete hit on all the points that were important to me,” said Bridget Montgomery, who attended the rally wearing an Elizabeth Warren–themed T-shirt with the words Nevertheless She Persisted. “But there are a lot of other really strong candidates out there. I’m not ready to make a decision.” Still, she conceded, “I doubt I’d be out here on a Friday with my daughters if it was just Pete speaking.”
Unlike his run against Clinton, there is no establishment favorite in D’Alessandro’s race for Sanders to rail against. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has backed some moderate candidates in a couple of contested primaries, has remained on the sidelines on this one. And given the career he’s made for himself working on Democratic campaigns big and small, it’s D’Alessandro who comes closest to being the political insider in the field.
That made for an odd juxtaposition as Bernie encouraged other people to run for Congress, even as he was stumping for D’Alessandro. “Don’t sit aside and think that the other person is so smart that they deserve to be in Congress, they deserve to be president, they deserve to be in the state legislature. Break through that psychological wall,” he told the Des Moines crowd on Friday. “Trust me, I work in the United States Senate. And if some of these guys can sit there, everybody in this room can be on the school board or state legislature.”
The Iowa race is crowded with first-time candidates who have heeded that call. Theresa Greenfield is running against D’Alessandro with the kind of affecting personal story that Elizabeth Warren herself could appreciate. Her first husband, a union electrical lineman, was killed on the job when she was just 24, leaving her a widow with one young child and another on the way. Nearly three decades later, she’s the president of a local real estate firm. Her journey up from “scrappy farm girl,” she tells voters, would have never been possible without the social safety net provided by the government and organized labor. (She also got a small PR bump of her own when Time magazine put her face—along with about 50 others—on its cover last month celebrating all the first-time female candidates now running in the midterms.) Greenfield, a political newcomer, has also secured the endorsements of a handful of local labor organizations.
The field also includes: Cindy Axne, a local businesswoman who has a lengthy list of endorsements from local Democrats and activists; Austin Frerick, a former economist at the U.S. Treasury who rarely misses an opportunity to rail against the economic concentration in Iowa’s farming industry; and Paul Knupp, a multidenominational minister who describes himself as a “socialist democrat.”
The primary is still more than three months away—and, thanks to the quirks of Iowa’s political process, D’Alessandro will need at least 35 percent of the primary vote to win outright, otherwise the nomination will be decided at a Democratic convention—a playing field that could tilt in Pete’s favor given his local Rolodex.
The Iowa race is the kind of progressive free for all that Sanders himself might face if he decides to run again in 2020. The long list of possible White House hopefuls is littered with candidates who have taken steps toward Sanders, and away from Hillary Clinton, since the 2016 election—most notably on Bernie’s Medicare-for-all proposal, which is now shaping up to be an early litmus test for progressives in 2020.
But even as the Democratic Party is taking a page out of Sanders’ policy book, any candidate hoping to peel off his loyal supporters two years from now will have her work cut out for her. His trip to Iowa, which also included an evening appearance in Cedar Rapids at a rally against the GOP tax law, made it clear that progressives here are in no hurry to move on.
If the mood in Des Moines had the low buzz of an afternoon political rally, the evening vibe in Cedar Rapids was like an all-ages electric folk concert. Some of the same vendors made the two-hour drive to hawk homemade Bernie 2020 gear, and scores of people were lined up outside more than 90 minutes before the event was slated to kick off. Once the doors finally opened, a group of college-age attendees raced across the floor to secure themselves a spot near the front of the stage—in the process, one woman tripped and fell. When Sanders finally came on stage nearly two hours later, to thundering applause from the 600 or 700 people in the event hall, at least one elderly woman seated in a special reserved section stood up and waved her cane in the air in celebration. Many of those sitting next to her seemed to lack her mobility, but few lacked her excitement.
Sanders has taken pains to avoid talking about 2020, but his Iowa supporters were quick to note that he has been to the state three times since last summer. “I thought he was running,” Hotchkin, sporting his pink 2020 hat, told me. “Isn’t he?”
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