Democratic officials woke Wednesday morning searching for answers as to why the party was unable to win several marquee Senate and gubernatorial races the night before.
But for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the explanation was simple. The candidates who underperformed weren’t progressive enough; those who didn’t shy away from progressivism were undone, in part, by “racist” attacks.
“I think you know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American,” Sanders told The Daily Beast, referencing the close contests involving Andrew Gillum in Florida and Stacey Abrams in Georgia and ads run against the two. “I think next time around, by the way, it will be a lot easier for them to do that.”
Sanders wasn’t speaking as a mere observer but, rather, as someone who had invested time and reputation on many of the midterm contests. The Vermonter, who is potentially considering another bid for the presidency in 2020, mounted an aggressive campaign travel schedule over the past few months and endorsed both Abrams and Gillum. He also has a personal political investment in the notion that unapologetic, authentic progressive populism can be sold throughout the country and not just in states and districts that lean left.
Surveying the victories and the carnage of Tuesday’s results, Sanders framed it as a vindication of that vision. The candidates who performed well even though they lost, he said, offered positive progressive views for the future of their states, including Gillum, Abrams, and Texas Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke. Those who were heavily defeated, Sanders said, didn’t galvanize young voters, people of color, and typically non-active voters.
“I think you got to contrast that to the votes of conservative Democrats who did not generate a great deal of excitement within the Democratic Party,” Sanders said, alluding to a host of Senate Democrats who lost re-election on Tuesday night. “Did not bring the kind of new people, new energy that they needed and ended up doing quite poorly. In admittedly difficult states. Missouri and Indiana are not easy states, but neither is Florida or Georgia or Texas.”
“You look at Beto O’Rourke. Running in, you know, what is generally considered to be a red state,” Sanders added, in some of his first remarks on the Texas Democrat. “Enormous excitement. Enormous citizen participation, young people participation. Broke the bank in terms of small contributions that he got. Came within a hair of winning in Texas.”
Sanders’ explanation for Tuesday’s results is not universally shared among Democratic Party strategists, who have cited state demographics and fears about immigration as having more to do with the outcomes than a candidate’s progressive bona fides.
Senate Republicans built on their narrow majority with a net pickup of three seats on Tuesday, with a possible fourth in Florida, pending an anticipated recount. In the states Sanders referenced specifically, Indiana and Missouri, incumbent Senators Joe Donnelly (D-IN) and Claire McCaskill did close their campaigns by tacking to the middle and emphasizing their agreements with President Trump (all while still running on protecting insurers’ coverage pre-existing conditions). But one top Senate strategist insisted to The Daily Beast that their doing so actually kept the contests closer than they could have been.
Sanders, by contrast, credited Abrams with a “brilliant campaign” for her efforts to bring non-active Democratic voters into the electoral process. He marveled at O’Rourke’s fundraising prowess, which allowed the Texas Democrat to raise $38 million in the third quarter of this year—the largest of any Senate candidate in history—and earn more than 48 percent of the vote against incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). And he noted that Gillum helped generate turnout that led to the successful passing of Amendment 4, which will restore voting rights to 1.5 million convicted felons in Florida.
“I think he’s a fantastic politician in the best sense of the word,” Sanders said of Gillum. “He stuck to his guns in terms of a progressive agenda. I think he ran a great campaign. And he had to take on some of the most blatant and ugly racism that we have seen in many, many years. And yet he came within a whisker of winning.”
As for the notion that race may have played a role in Abrams’ and Gillum’s defeats, the two did face racist robocalls in their campaigns, and Gillum’s opponent, soon-to-be Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, began his campaign by urging voters not to “monkey this up” by voting for his opponent.
The narrow losses did nothing to dissuade Sanders that he, or anyone else competing as a Democratic candidate for president in 2020, should write off perennially tricky states in the South, including Texas, a state that he believes could go blue in two years. “And let me tell you something else,” Sanders added. “I think the day is going to come sooner than later when states like Mississippi are going to become progressive states.”