How Bernie Sanders could elect more Democrats than Hillary Clinton — without being the nominee
As the Republican Party writes its obituary (dead, at 162, from extreme resentment-itis?), the Democratic Party is left to ponder the possibility of its own contested convention, an eventuality triggered by a candidate who has become a movement, set in opposition to a frontrunner who has become, most unusually, mistrusted. Still, they'd rather be Ds than Rs right now. So here's a constructive suggestion: Democrats should focus on those who are disadvantaged.
With a 300 pledged delegate deficit, it remains as difficult for Bernie Sanders to win the nomination as it did before Tuesday night; the vagaries of the nominating calendar have once again conferred the illusion of momentum where none exists. (Remember: Hillary Clinton won Kentucky and West Virginia by blowout margins in 2008 — her last hurrah.) Having made his point, having blasted past all predicted thresholds and blockades, and having indelibly left his mark on the future of his party, the senator from Vermont will arrive in Philadelphia with, as his amen corner at The Nation notes, more delegates than any insurgent in the party's history.
He will not leave the city with the nomination. But he could wind up being more responsible for electing Democrats in 2016 than the person who will be at the top of the ticket.
Sanders has raised, by the tally of the FEC, $185.9 million, and spent $168.3 million, on a campaign he will lose. Most of that money, as we know, comes from small donors. He has proved that a small donor base can fund a major party presidential candidate in the era of Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision about corporations, contributions, and free speech that Democrats worried would crush their party's ability to keep pace with Republicans. (Clinton has raised $262 million, more than $100 million of which comes from small donors, too, and her super PAC has raised $76 million to date).
Although the Democrats managed to do fine, financially, in 2012, party insiders say that the effect below the level of national visibility has been devastating. Republicans, they say, have a lopsided advantage in legislative races, in races for state supreme court justices, and in other contests that are hard to watchdog.
If Bernie Sanders turns loose his self-funding army by identifying the 100 most important down-ballot races, and directing his contributors to assess and give if they so choose, he could be responsible for leveling that playing field. Generally, the nominee is responsible for raising money for the lower echelons of the ticket, but Sanders is raising money the way that Democrats will raise money in the future, and there's nothing in the law that would prevent him from devoting some or all of his time after the convention to helping these candidates raise money.
If you're a Democrat, this is uber important. The GOP now controls more state legislative seats than it's had in a century. It controls a majority of state legislatures outright. And "more than 60 percent of governors, 55 percent of attorneys general and secretaries of state," too. Solving hard problems requires cooperation between states and the federal government, and, as we've seen with Medicare expansion, among other bread-and-butter issues, those dogs won't hunt if states are implacably cast as conservative and defiant in their governance.
Democrats need to begin winning these races if they have any hope of correcting the perceived imbalances in redistricting, which might help them win back the House of Representatives; voting rights are being challenged across the country precisely because the Democratic Party is powerless to prevent Republicans from rewriting election laws. So is abortion rights. So is organized labor.
A President Bernie Sanders can do nothing about this revanchist march. Only down-ballot Democrats can.
And that's why, if he's going to do anything other than promote himself and his own brand, Sanders should focus less on the Democratic platform at the national level, and more on electing Democrats at the state level. He is the most powerful Democratic politician today, aside from the president. He can, if he chooses, use his power to great effect.