Bernie Sanders may fill stadiums, but Washington is a lonely place for the presidential candidate.
Vermont’s junior senator often strolls alone on Capitol Hill. But life inside the Capitol is even lonelier.
Sure, Sanders has garnered the attention of the Democratic establishment by eating into Hillary Clinton’s support in key states, but Washington’s political class is keeping Sanders at arm’s length—including those from his home state.
In the past, states would put forward a “favorite son” candidate and band together at the convention until they tossed their votes as a block behind the eventual nominee. But Sanders has even failed to get an endorsement from his own state’s congressional delegation. Vermont’s senior senator, Patrick Leahy, was an early Clinton backer.
“I spent a lot of time with her as she was ending her time as Secretary of State; urged her to run,” he said at the Capitol. “Just as I had spent time with her when she was a senator, urging her to take Secretary of State, even though she was enjoying being senator. So it’s a personal thing.”
And Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) hasn’t endorsed anyone in the contest.
“I don’t have any plans right now, but people are excited there’s a race and he’s from Vermont,” he said, obviously not wanting to take sides. “He’s making the income inequality argument and that’s going to be a factor in the race. Hillary has a lot of support in Vermont, as does Sanders.”
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) is a Sanders ally on everything from Wall Street reform to trying to kill the president’s new trade deal, but Sherman—like the bulk of Democrats in Washington—is firmly behind Clinton.
“I think our party would be best nominating Hillary Clinton and uniting behind her,” Sherman said. “That means Bernie Sanders would be a loud and effective voice in the United State Senate for many years to come.”
Clinton, in contrast, has wrapped up endorsements from 30 (of 44) Democratic senators and 117 (of 188) members of the House of Representatives. Sanders has gotten one congressional endorsement. Yeah, that’s not a typo: One.
That gives Clinton a major edge if the primary is close, because each one of those members of Congress is also a voting superdelegate—key votes needed to secure the party’s nomination at the Democratic Convention next year. They’re unbound by how their district or state votes, while most delegates are sent to the convention with set instructions from the voters on the ground, hence there’s nothing “super” about them.
Sanders isn’t the only presidential candidate getting the shaft from the Democratic establishment and his home state lawmakers.
Former Senators Jim Webb (Va.) and Lincoln Chafee (R.I.) have failed to garner even a single congressional endorsement.
Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley doesn’t have the backing of a single congressional Democrat from his home state, but he’s locked up a measly one endorsement at the Capitol: Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA).
While studying political science at the University of Maryland, Swalwell got his first political job working for O’Malley’s campaign, so it was easy for him to throw his support behind his former boss when asked.
“I needed him before I believed in him,” Swalwell said. He also has faith that O’Malley will catch fire. O’Malley worked on the ground for Gary Hart’s 1984 campaign against Walter Mondale. Swalwell said that taught O’Malley lessons about the importance of a strong, energetic ground game, which he’s already putting in place in key states.
Still, Swalwell says O’Malley needs the national spotlight provided by this week’s first Democratic debate in Nevada to help propel him into the public eye.
“We’re still early. I’m excited for what’s to come. I think this coming Tuesday will be one of his big turning points,” Swalwell said. “He’s got the patience. If he didn’t have that perspective it would be easy to be frustrated, or just walk away, but he knows things can change in an instant in these things.”
As for Sanders, his campaign maintains they’re not worried about the lack of support from the party establishment. With public disgust with Washington growing, the party’s establishment doesn’t maintain the clout or respect they once did. That, coupled with new opportunities provided by social media, is giving Sanders a perch to write his own political equation.
“His strategy is to build a grassroots movement to rebuild the middle class and take on the billionaire class,” said Sander’s communications director, Michael Briggs. “It seems to be working. He’s drawing bigger crowds than anyone else.”
On Friday, Sanders got his lone congressional endorsement. Rep. Raul Grijalva—a co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus—threw his support behind Sanders in front of a crowd of more than 10,000 people in Tucson, Arizona.
“I didn’t want to wait to see what Biden does. I didn’t want to wait for the debate, ’cause I think that’s kind of contrived to do it that way,” he said at the Capitol. “Bernie has run a campaign that has not been disparaging or ugly.”
“I knew that I was probably going to be one of few,” Grijalva said with a chuckle. “I didn’t know that I was going to be the first one.”