Sanders made his mark, but it did not occur onstage: His presidential campaign confirmed that he had secured the endorsements of two of the most prominent left-wing women of color in Congress, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
Sanders appeared alongside Ocasio-Cortez Saturday at Queensbridge Park in New York at his first rally since his heart attack. She announced her support and hailed the Democratic primary field.
“No one wanted to question the system, and in 2016, he fundamentally changed politics in America,” she told an enthusiastic and diverse crowd. “We right now have one of the best Democratic presidential primary fields in a generation and much of that is thanks to the work that Bernie Sanders has done in his entire life.”
The endorsements jolted the primary race, signaling that Sanders, 78, was still a formidable contender just as it had increasingly seemed like a contest between Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden. They also shifted the conversation away from his health issues and his age, infusing his campaign with a renewed sense of vitality.
“There’s been some degree of criticism overall — Bernie Sanders can’t win because his movement is tapped out,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, said. “This discounted that.”
But if the endorsements were an obvious indication that Sanders was not ready to surrender the party’s left flank to Warren, it is not clear how much they will ultimately change the race — in part because there are signs that voters are not taking their cues from endorsements. Warren, for instance, has attracted huge crowds, posted some of the biggest fundraising numbers, and surged to the top of national and early-state polls despite lacking endorsements from a single governor, big-city mayor or senator outside her home state. At the same time, Sen. Kamala Harris of California is struggling to gain momentum even though she has the backing of politicians across the country, including her state’s governor, Gavin Newsom.
Sanders’ endorsements could inject fresh energy into a campaign that in some respects needed it badly. Consistently trailing Biden and Warren in recent polls and struggling to expand his base, he spent the last two weeks facing a barrage of questions about his health. His campaign made a show of financial strength this month when it reported it had collected $25.3 million between July and September — the most of any candidate in that period — but the announcement was quickly eclipsed by news of his heart attack.
Sanders’ campaign is hoping that endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Omar — and possibly Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan— prove that he is building a multiracial, working-class coalition of voters. His aides are also confident that the women will motivate young people, a group that was critical to his success in 2016 and that his allies know he must win over again, both optically and for actual votes.
“I don’t think anyone would question or doubt that they, more than a lot of people, have the ability to inspire young people,” Shakir said, referring to Ocasio-Cortez and Omar. “That in itself is going to be tremendous.”
The endorsements underscore how Sanders is striving to portray himself as the candidate furthest to the left. In recent months, as support for Warren has swelled, Sanders has unveiled policy proposals that have gone beyond hers — including plans to completely eliminate student debt and medical debt, and to impose a wealth tax that would apply to more households and is steeper for rich people than the one Warren has proposed.
Several Democratic officials and strategists said the endorsements of Ocasio-Cortez and Omar could stoke enthusiasm among the far left and perhaps prompt some of Warren’s supporters to take a second look at Sanders.
But some said the endorsements might not do much to grow his existing coalition, pointing out that the two women carry a similar anti-establishment, populist message that already appeals to Sanders’ voter base. Some suggested the endorsements could even help Warren by making her appear more moderate and pragmatic in comparison with Sanders.
Although Ocasio-Cortez and Omar have a big following nationally, and have become preferred targets of President Donald Trump’s, their support may not help woo voters, particularly in critical early states.
Jess Morales Rocketto, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, said the endorsements could give Sanders a fundraising bump and more media attention. But she was skeptical that the new support would sway undecided voters.
“I don’t know that a congresswoman from New York, one from Minnesota, one from Michigan are superinfluential to voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina,” she said.
Sanders’ allies said the visual imagery alone — an older man standing with younger women of color — could be enough of a benefit, especially as he continues to fight the perception that his voter base is skewed white and male.
Cori Bush, who was endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez in her unsuccessful bid for Congress last year in St. Louis, said the endorsements from the two women “knocks away that whole Bernie Bro idea.”
She also said their support “wipes away the idea that maybe he’s not the progressive champion anymore,” she said.
Last month, the Working Families Party, an influential liberal group that backed Sanders in 2016, endorsed Warren. The announcement infuriated his supporters. But it also sent a message: It was time for progressives to pick a side and starting organizing.
Maurice Mitchell, the Working Families Party’s national director, dismissed the notion that the dueling endorsements would splinter the left.
“We’ve said from the beginning that progressives need to get involved, and that’s exactly what they did,” he said, referring to Ocasio-Cortez and Omar. “It’s a good thing for our movement that folks choose one of these candidates.”
Mitchell said his group — which endorsed Ocasio-Cortez’s opponent, then-Rep. Joseph Crowley, in the 2018 primary — planned to marshal its network of volunteers across the country to work with voters to nominate Warren.
What is less obvious is the role Ocasio-Cortez and Omar will play for the Sanders campaign. Waleed Shahid, communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats, which helped propel Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional campaign, said the two women can mobilize their own networks of volunteers and donors. He pointed to Ocasio-Cortez’s influence this year in the Democratic primary for district attorney in Queens, where her support for Tiffany Cabán helped to nearly lift her to victory.
And because the two congresswomen represent the activist base of the party, he said, they could galvanize progressive activists around the country.
But perhaps above all, the endorsements will help dispel questions about Sanders’ viability post-heart attack, he said.
“Some voters do have questions around his age,” Mitchell said. “Voters who have that question in mind are probably thinking twice about that now that they see the youngest leaders of the Democratic Party supporting Bernie.”
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