HAMPTON, New Hampshire - Levi Sanders kicked off his speech to a group of Democratic activists with a variation of a well-used joke.
“The most important thing you guys have to understand is I’m Larry David’s fourth cousin. Don’t think about Bernie Sanders. So if my ridiculous sense of humor comes through, you’ll understand that’s Larry David,” the quirky son of Sen. Bernie Sanders said.
The joke kind of fell flat with the 30 or so activists who showed up last week at a meeting of the Hampton Democrats to listen to Sanders and two other candidates.
And some political observers say like the response the joke elicited, Sanders’ campaign for Congress is also falling flat.
Sanders grabbed national headlines in late February when he announced his bid for the House in New Hampshire’s high profile First Congressional District.
And that’s where buzz seems to have ended.
Unlike his famous father, whose brand of socialism took the country by storm in 2016, Levi’s momentum ended shortly after it began.
“In the first day we had 50 volunteers. In the second day I think we were at 108 volunteers. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of energy, a lot of momentum,” the first-time candidate told this reporter days after launching his campaign.
But three months later, any expectations that younger Sanders would shake up the Democratic race - among a crowded field of nine candidates for an open congressional seat -haven’t materialized.
There are lots of reasons why Sanders hasn’t caught on - starting with the fact he doesn’t live in the district.
Add that to a lack of any public endorsement by his father, his late entry into the race after many top Bernie Sanders supporters had already committed to other candidates, and his lackluster fundraising to date, have fueled a perception that his campaign isn’t firing on all cylinders.
“I’m feeling very good at where we’re at,” Sanders said in an interview following his appearance with the Hampton Democrats.
Sanders touted that “we’re reaching out to a lot of low income and working class folks. I’m starting to get a good group of folks in New Hampshire and I’m feeling very good.”
But his optimism is far from universally shared.
“Sanders's name brought him free notoriety, and aroused people's curiosity. But the name is not some magic spell. In and of itself, it won't be nearly enough,” University of New Hampshire professor of political science Dante Scala said.
And a leading Granite State backer of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign, who asked to remain anonymous to speak more freely, said “I think there’s a kind of a WTF effect going on with that campaign. People don’t really understand what’s going on there. He doesn’t seem to have the support of Sen. Sanders publicly.”
Bernie Sanders shook up New Hampshire’s Democratic politics, crushing eventual 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton in the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary.
The elder Sanders still has strong support here, and an endorsement of his son’s congressional bid could have gone a long way.
But publicly he’s staying neutral, even though his son’s taking a page out of the senator’s playbook, espousing most of the same progressive issues.
Right after his son’s campaign launch, Bernie Sanders said he was “very proud of Levi’s commitment to public service and his years of work on behalf of low-income and working people.”
But he pointedly added that “Levi will be running his own campaign, in his own way, with his own ideas. The decision as to who to vote for will be determined by the people of New Hampshire’s first district, and nobody else.”
On a recent call with about three-dozen of his closest New Hampshire supporters, Bernie Sanders didn’t mention his son’s congressional campaign, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the conversation.
And last week, the senator released a new statement re-emphasizing that he was staying neutral, adding that his family does “not believe in dynastic politics.”
Levi’s decision to run for Congress was also met by a lack of enthusiasm by some of his father’s top advisers, according to sources close to senator’s inner circle.
When Levi jumped into the race, it was relatively late in the game.
Four-term Democratic Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter announced last October that she wouldn’t run for re-election in 2018. Her decision triggered a flurry of activity, and within a month six Democrats had announced candidacies. Another launched a bid at the beginning of the year.
Among those getting in early was Mark MacKenzie, a state representative and longtime state labor leader who was on the Bernie Sanders 2016 steering committee. Also announcing soon after Shea-Porter’s news was Mindi Messmer, a progressive state representative who backed the elder Sanders in presidential primary battle.
By the time Levi launched his campaign, many of his father’s supporters had already committed to MacKenzie, Messmer, and other contenders in the talented field of candidates, such as Executive Councilor Chris Pappas.
“The timing was not on his side,” explained former state Sen. Burt Cohen, who was a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
“What’s the point of his campaign,” asked Cohen, who’s backing Messmer. “We’ve already got some great people running.”
Scala, a longtime observer of Granite State politics, added that “contests for open seats in Congress typically attract a number of quality candidates, and the race to represent New Hampshire's First District is no exception to the rule. Sanders has a high bar to surpass in that regard.”
For the past two decades, Sanders has worked as a legal services analyst in Massachusetts. He highlighted that he’s “represented the working class, who have been beaten up by the system.”
He told the crowd “I think there’s some really, really, good candidates but I believe I’m the best person to represent District 1.”
He argued that he’s the most electable candidate in the general election – in a top swing district in a crucial swing state that that’s flip-flopped between the Democrats and the GOP the past four elections – because he’s the best candidate “who can reach in and talk to working class folks who are disaffected by the political process.”
And he touted that “I understand how Congress works so when I walk in on the first day, I feel absolutely confident that I can take on Donald Trump and the Republican Party. There’s no way they can push me around. I’ve taken on the toughest judges, the toughest lawyers, everywhere.”
Sanders, 49, grew up in Vermont and graduated college from the University of Oregon. But it’s his current zip code that’s working against him as he runs for Congress.
Sanders lives in Claremont, New Hampshire, near the Vermont border and far from the First District, which covers the eastern part of the state. While it’s uncommon for a candidate to live outside the district in which they’re running, it is legal. The U.S. Constitution only mandates that House members reside in the state they serve.
“From a constitutional basis, I have a right to run. I’ve lived in New Hampshire for 15 years,” Sanders argued soon after launching his campaign.
About month later he downplayed the issue, offering that “when I talk with people, they don’t ask me that question. They ask about issues.”
But for some voters, the geography’s a problem.
Democratic voter Mary Cady of Newmarket brought it up with Sanders at a speed-dating style candidates’ forum in Rochester in early April.
Cady, who said she was undecided, explained that “legally he has the right to run. There’s no question about that. But I feel that he should be running in his own district.
State Rep. Chuck Grassie of Rochester who also took part in the forum, said “I would like to see somebody who lives in the district and who has history with the district.”
But former state lawmaker Bill Baber of Dover offered that the commotion over where Sanders lives isn’t “the biggest issue for me.”
“I think I care more about the character of the person, more about their position on the issues,” he added.
At the recent gathering in Hampton, Pat Bushway was “concerned about the perception” that Sanders didn’t live in the district. She worried “how that could play out” in the general election.
The three Republican candidates in the race all live within the First District.
Sanders argued that where he lives is a sideshow.
“The reality is ultimately the issues that are in District 1 and District 2 are similar when it comes to Medicare for all and to tuition to public colleges and universities,” he told the Daily Beast. “I would encourage people to stay focused on the issues that matter to the people of New Hampshire.”
Cohen lamented that Sanders didn’t run in the Second District, suggesting that “we could use a good progressive there.”
Three-term Democratic Congresswoman Annie Kuster has never been a favorite for many progressives. Asked why he didn’t primary challenge Kuster, Sanders said “I think Annie’s doing a pretty good job.”
But, he added, that the First District seat being open was a factor in his decision.
Sanders’ campaign cash is also being scrutinized as a barometer of how his campaign’s faring.
Any thought that the fundraising energy from his father’s 2016 campaign, which raised millions and millions in small dollar donations, would carry over to Levi’s campaign has yet to materialize.
He raised an underwhelming $11,486 in his first month as a candidate, ending the first quarter of this year with just $10,116 cash on hand.
Asked about the unimpressive numbers, Sanders explained “I made a conscience decision that I’m not going to take money from corporations, from lobbyists. I understand that this is going to be a tough slog in terms of a lot of people don’t have a lot of money.”
Sanders said he’ll be holding some fundraisers and vowed that “I’ll be doing better than I was.”
But he argued that “it’s not about the money. It’s about connecting with people and getting people to understand that they matter.”
That hasn’t been a smashing success either.
Mike Edgar, a state lawmaker who was in the audience as Sanders spoke to the Hampton Democrats, said he hasn’t made up his mind yet in the First District race, but added he wasn’t overwhelmed by Levi’s qualifications.
“With the nine people (in the race), he’s way down the list for me,” Edgar said.
While the first three months of Sanders’ campaign have been anything but impressive, there’s still time to rebound.
New Hampshire doesn’t hold its primary until early September. And right now none of the eight other candidates in the race for the Democratic nomination appear to be pulling ahead.
The Bernie Sanders supporter who asked to remain anonymous said that “there’s still time for things to change. I think if anybody has the ability to change things quickly in this campaign, it would be Levi Sanders.”
And the candidate himself obviously remains optimistic.
“We just have to continue to connect with folks,” Sanders said. “This is a long slog and I’m feeling increasingly confident.”