U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders isn’t on the ballot in Wisconsin in 2018, but his views and candidates inspired by them are all over it.
The Vermont independent and 2016 Democratic presidential runner-up will visit Wisconsin Monday as part of a national tour to support Democratic candidates in the Nov. 6 elections.
In Kenosha, Sanders will rally supporters for Racine ironworker Randy Bryce, the Democrat seeking House Speaker Paul Ryan’s Congressional seat in southeastern Wisconsin. In Milwaukee he’ll appear with U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Evers.
It’s the second recent Wisconsin trip for Sanders, who held rallies in July in Eau Claire and Janesville for Baldwin and Bryce, respectively.
Democrats hope the upcoming rallies, about two weeks before Election Day, will energize young voters to whom Sanders appealed in his 2016 presidential bid — but whose demographic traditionally turns out in low numbers in midterms — to show up this time.
“A key part is motivating younger voters,” said Paul Nolette, a political science professor at Marquette University. “That’s one of his big purposes here.”
In April 2016, Sanders decisively beat Hillary Clinton in the Wisconsin presidential primary, with a nearly 2-to-1 margin in Dane County and capturing all counties but Milwaukee. Since then the policy views Sanders has championed have become touchstones for many Democrats here and nationally.
Examples include Sanders’ “Medicare For All” health care plan and his call to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Peter Rickman — a Milwaukee labor activist who led Sanders’ Wisconsin delegation to the 2016 Democratic National Convention — said Sanders “created the political space” to tout those issues, as well as free college tuition, within the Democratic mainstream.
“Now Medicare For All, it’s not taboo any more,” said state Rep. David Bowen, D-Milwaukee, an early Sanders supporter in 2016.
Sanders’ appeal in Wisconsin and other Midwest states also could be key if he mounts another White House bid in 2020, as many expect.
Sanders’ influence in Wisconsin
In the 2018 campaign, Sanders’ influence is apparent in the Badger State.
Bryce’s policy views closely mirror Sanders’, and Sanders’ full-throated early support helped Bryce win a Democratic primary in the 1st District and build a national following, particularly for fundraising. Bryce is running against Republican Bryan Steil, a member of the UW Board of Regents.
Baldwin, a longtime supporter of universal health care, signed on last year to Sanders’ Medicare For All bill and has acknowledged her support for it on the stump.
Evers, meanwhile, has name-checked Sanders to solidify his liberal credentials in his race against Republican Gov. Scott Walker. Evers’ campaign website says he supports raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and indexing to inflation, adding that “like Senator Bernie Sanders ... Tony also believes that this should be phased in over multiple years.”
Groups inspired by Sanders also are organizing and campaigning for candidates in Wisconsin this cycle. Our Wisconsin Revolution, a state chapter of a national group formed as an outgrowth of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, has endorsed a slate of candidates and is canvassing and phone-banking for some, according to its spokeswoman, Grace Wagner.
Milwaukee County supervisor Marina Dimitrijevic leads the Wisconsin Working Families Party, which has partnered with Our Wisconsin Revolution. Dimitrijevic said Sanders has been a credible messenger for his ideas, adding that he brings a “high trust factor” that’s uncommon among politicians.
“Why Bernie is so popular is he is seen as this person who’s inspiring and brings a lot of hope,” Dimitrijevic said.
Still, when the groups attempted to influence the Democratic gubernatorial primary, they were ineffective. After multiple rounds of informal online voting, they narrowed down the crowded Democratic field to four candidates for a possible endorsement. Evers wasn’t one of them.
Some Republican candidates have sought to link their Democratic opponents to Sanders’ positions to paint them as extremist. Baldwin’s Republican opponent, Leah Vukmir, has slammed her for supporting what Vukmir has described as “socialist Bernie Sanders’ … government-run health care plan.”
‘Our best candidate against Trump’
With Sanders, 2020 is never far from Democrats’ minds.
Rickman, who now runs a Milwaukee labor organization for service and hospitality workers, contends that Sanders voters in the primary who didn’t ultimately vote in the general election could be part of a winning coalition for Democrats in 2018 and beyond.
Recent polling data is not available on how all Wisconsin voters view Sanders now. But in 2016, polls consistently showed Sanders to be popular in the Badger State — and faring far better than Clinton.
A June 2016 Marquette Law School poll found Sanders’ favorability among registered voters at 53 percent, with 36 percent viewing him unfavorably and 10 percent undecided. It found Sanders leading then-Republican-nominee Donald Trump by a whopping 56-31 margin. Trump narrowly beat Clinton in Wisconsin in the general election.
Earlier this month the Marquette poll found Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal getting 49 percent support among registered voters in Wisconsin, with 41 percent opposed.
Asked if he hopes Sanders runs again in 2020, Bowen, who is vice chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said he’s focused on the 2018 elections for now. But shortly after those are done, Bowen said, the speculation about 2020 will start.
“There’s no denying that Bernie has the chance to continue growing that multi-pronged coalition that he created,” Bowen said.
Rickman isn’t hedging on his enthusiasm for a Sanders 2020 run.
“I think he’s our best candidate against Trump,” Rickman said.