The Slatest

After the Bernie Buzz

In western Iowa, a Bernie Sanders protege limps to the finish line.

Bernie Sanders talks with his Iowa campaign coordinator Pete D'Alessandro, right, before speaking to supporters at an open house at his Iowa campaign headquarters, Saturday, June 13, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Bernie Sanders, seen here in 2015, talks with Pete D’Alessandro in Des Moines, Iowa. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Two years ago, Pete D’Alessandro helped Bernie Sanders to a near-upset of Hillary Clinton in the Iowa Caucus. Earlier this year, it seemed like Sanders might just return the favor, by helping deliver D’Alessandro the Democratic nomination for a flippable House seat in eastern Iowa.

Sanders personally endorsed D’Alessandro at the end of January, which made national headlines given how judicious Bernie had been in bestowing his personal brand. The Vermont senator then came to Des Moines the following month for an afternoon rally, and sent out a fundraising email on his behalf, which helped D’Alessandro nearly double what he brought in during the previous six months.

But the Bernie momentum didn’t last. And with Democratic voters headed to the polls on Tuesday, D’Alessandro will need a small miracle to emerge with the nomination.

Public polling has been limited in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District, but a Des Moines Register survey this month found D’Alessandro running a distant third in a field of three, with just 11 percent support—16 points behind Eddie Mauro, a former teacher who now runs a local insurance firm, and 15 points behind Cindy Axne, a former state government official who now heads a local digital design shop. (Yes, it’s only a single poll and the usual caveats apply, but it was also conducted by a firm that FiveThirtyEight considers “the best pollster in politics.”)

Despite the Bernie boost, D’Alessandro has raised only about half of what Mauro and Axne have each brought in, though about half of Mauro’s total came from a personal loan.

A flood of small-dollar donations followed the Bernie endorsement, but those largely dried up after Sanders moved on. D’Alessandro raised roughly $50,000 during April and the first-half of May, according to his most recent FEC report, bringing his total haul for the entire campaign to about $283,000. He had only a fraction of his competitors’ cash on hand as they entered the home stretch: Axne had roughly $170,000 at of mid-May, Mauro had $41,000, and D’Alessandro less than $8,000.

Despite his popularity on the left, Sanders hasn’t been much of a kingmaker in congressional primaries this year. A number of his chosen candidates have already lost contested primaries, including Rich Lazer and Greg Edwards in Pennsylvania earlier this month. And among his favored candidates who have prevailed, it’s not clear Sanders was the difference-maker.

Part of the problem for candidates like D’Alessandro seems to be that so much of the party has adopted Sanders’ 2016 platform. When I visited Iowa’s 3rd district earlier this year, I found the entire field sounded an awful lot like Bernie. D’Alessandro has tried to stake out a position a little further to the left, calling for Medicare For All, while Axne and Mauro have taken a slightly more moderate position, advocating for a public option as the best way to increase coverage in the current political climate. It’s not clear that distinction has resonated with voters yet.

D’Alessandro also got a stroke of bad luck in March, when Theresa Greenfield, considered one of the leading candidates, failed to make it onto the ballot after a bizarre series of events that included the eleventh-hour discovery that her campaign manager had forged an unknown number of signatures on her campaign paperwork. Greenfield launched a mad dash to fix the problem but despite the help of some local Democratic groups—as well as D’Alessandro—she was ultimately disqualified.

That unexpected development fundamentally changed the race. For one, it left only three candidates on the ballot, all but ensuring the nomination will be decided by primary voters on Tuesday as opposed to at a state convention, as would happen under state law if no candidate secures 35 percent of the vote. (Ironically for a Sanders disciple, D’Alessandro would have likely had an edge at a party convention given his deep ties to the state party from his time working with former Iowa Govs. Tom Vilsack and Chet Culver.) Greenfield’s exit also left Axne as the only woman in the race, a dynamic that will likely favor her to at least some degree based on what we’ve seen in other Democratic primaries this year. Already it’s helping. Shortly after Greenfield’s exit, Axne secured the backing of EMILY’s List, the powerful national group that helps pro-choice Democratic women get elected.

Meanwhile, Mauro has proved to be a far stronger candidate than anyone expected. He lost his bid for the statehouse badly two years ago, and was largely dismissed when he got in this race. But he’s run a strong campaign and, as local political reporter Pat Rynard has pointed out, he’s also expected to benefit from a competitive down-ballot race that should boost turnout in Des Moines’s South Side, where he and his family have deep roots.

Still, D’Alessandro keeps pushing until the end, hoping he might pull off a Bernie-esque surprise at the eleventh hour. Earlier this month, he began airing his first TV ad of the campaign. The 30-second spot listed his progressive bona fides, but its message was more neatly captured by the narrator. “Pete helped lead my campaign here in Iowa,” Sanders says to the camera. “Now, we need him in Congress to stop Donald Trump. So, please, vote for Pete D’Alessandro.”