On Wednesday night, Bernie Sanders debuted his post-primary plans for stoking the earnest embers of his movement. They start with a new nonprofit called Our Revolution, which has endorsed many baby Bernie candidates across the country and hopes to make sure the platform he fought for remains at the heart of the Democratic Party after November. “If anybody thinks [that platform] is going to be on a shelf collecting dust,” he said during a speech in Burlington, Vermont, which was being watched by more than 20,000 people online, “they are sadly mistaken.”
The moment was slightly overshadowed by a revolt inside Our Revolution, prompted by confusion over what the group was trying to accomplish. Two-thirds of its staffers have resigned, worried that the nonprofit, which registered as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization and doesn’t need to disclose donors, will be more focused on attracting big money and TV ads rather than the grassroots campaigning that got everyone excited about the Sanders presidential campaign in the first place. These types of nonprofits, known as “dark money groups,” have spent outrageous amounts in recent elections.
It’s also unclear how much the group, most similar to Obama’s Organizing for Action — another nonprofit set up after a presidential campaign — would be able to directly help the candidates it endorses. 501(c)(4)s are allowed to advocate for candidates, make voter guides, and run ads featuring candidates — but limitations kick in after it becomes a majority of a nonprofit’s spending. They can’t raise money for candidates directly or coordinate with them. “It’s an interesting gray area,” Robert Maguire at the Center for Responsive Politics told MTV News.
Focusing on complex issues like campaign finance reform can also be tricky for these kinds of outside efforts. “The biggest struggle with groups like that — fighting money with money — is that at a certain point that subject matter gets very complicated,” Maguire says. “People start with good intentions and excitement, but as they learn more about how complex it is, it becomes a lot less sexy.”
For now, however, all of these concerns are hypothetical, as Our Revolution is mostly relying on its massive email list to get out the message for the moment. Regardless of what the group does — or how much it would be able to achieve this election cycle, with so few months left — it’s clear that Sanders’s influence has already had an effect on races across the country. Although some of the most high-profile candidates endorsed by his organization were incumbents or challengers who would have run regardless of how his presidential campaign turned out, a number of people on the list are running for the first time, buoyed by the excitement that unfurled over the past year.
Miranda Gold, running for a state Senate seat in Idaho, always thought her husband would be the one to get into politics. But after Sanders called on supporters to run for office — and seeing how swamped her husband was this year — she decided to do it instead. She knows she probably won’t win; “I live in a pretty red state,” she says, “but I wanted to make sure my opponent didn’t run unchallenged.”
Jared Cates is running for a county commissioner seat in Nacogdoches County, Texas. Watching Sanders helped him learn how important it can be to get people to care about local and state politics. “It’s so easy to focus on the national-level campaigns,” he says. When not campaigning, Cates fixes ’60s and ’70s Honda motorcycles for a living; he was working on a 1972 Honda CL350 Scrambler before calling MTV News to talk about his run. “But the candidates on the state and local level are the ones who really affect your day-to-day life.”
Vernon Miller is the youngest person to ever chair the Omaha Tribal Council in Nebraska. He is 39, and running for a full-term appointment to the Omaha Nation School Board, as well as running for tribal council reelection. Miller taught at the school for eight years, and already knows how important young voters are if you care about progressive issues: 50 percent of his tribe is under the age of 18.
Who knows how they’ll do, but having more progressives inspired to run can’t be a bad thing for Democrats. The party has fallen behind on state and local levels after crushing electoral losses in 2010 and 2014. During midterm elections, traditionally Democratic demographics are less likely to turn out. After the last midterm cycle, Cook Political Report wrote that “about 55 percent of all state legislative seats in the country are held by Republicans.” The same story noted that “these races aren’t sexy,” confirming that it might be an uphill battle for all these candidates to get voters excited as they are, especially during such a draining election year.
Carolyn Fiddler, national communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, says that her organization likes to see Democrats and progressives running — no matter what their chances look like. “It’s important to have candidates talking about Democratic issues, even in those super red districts,” she says. Plus, Fiddler adds, “You never know what’s going to happen.” If there is one thing we have learned from 2016, that is probably it.
The even bigger question is how these candidates will keep staying upbeat and focused on these issues for years in the future, long after the Sanders campaign has ended, but before local races have become the hunkiest horse races out there. Democrats are already feeling better about gains in the Senate, House, and state legislatures in 2016 thanks to Trump. But what will happen in 2018 and 2020, the elections that will decide which parties will be in charge of redistricting? How do you keep convincing the same young voters excited by Sanders to keep turning out to vote in state and local elections?
The newer candidates running this year know it will be hard. Eva B. Zimmerman, a 29-year-old running for state representative in Newtown, Connecticut, sighed when I asked her how to keep this excitement up every election cycle. “I don’t know how to make it a norm for every election,” she says. “It’s going to take a lot of work.” Her family comes from Puerto Rico, where voter turnout is exceptionally high. “I just wish you could convince people how important it is. The outcome of the election will be your future.”
Brian Whitecalf, the LGBT caucus chair for the Nebraska Democratic Party, who is running for the Board of Supervisors, says, “There’s not always going to be instantaneous change. There are so many issues that it’s hard to keep up momentum. Even small, incremental change — like approving the new curriculum of a school board — that can be major.” And if they don’t succeed this year, some of them are already planning to try again. “I’ll probably do it again,” Gold says. "I’m really glad I did.”