As Sanders campaign wraps up, down-ballot candidates reap big Bern rewards

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks on the campus of Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 19, 2016.
Lucas Jackson | Reuters
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks on the campus of Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, U.S., April 19, 2016.

In just one day during his current campaign for the Vermont state senate, Chris Pearson raised over $28,000. During dinner alone, he raised $3,000.

However, contrary to the way many politicians typically raise money, the donations did not come from established fundraisers who paid to meet or eat with Pearson. Rather, the money came from an army of small donors across the country, spurred by an email from Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.

On May 24, the Sanders campaign sent out an email blast endorsing a number of state legislative candidates and asking donors to split donations between Sanders and the local campaigns. One of those campaigns belonged to Pearson, who had worked for Sanders during his 1998 congressional campaign and is currently a state representative.

In a campaign email sent two weeks later, Sanders updated his supporters and wrote that Pearson had received donations from 10,000 people and his campaign was now entirely funded for the rest of the election.

"I feel like I won the political lottery in a way," Pearson said of receiving Sanders' support.

Pundits have marveled at the fundraising network Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, amassed this cycle as he emerged as Hillary Clinton's chief rival for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. Sanders had raised over $200 million through April 30, mostly from small donations by individuals.

Now, as Sanders winds down his campaign in the wake of Clinton being crowned the Democrats' presumptive nominee, the network of activists he has created remains a potent tool for progressives with the potential to have a far reaching impact.

"What's successful here is that there is a large group of people who've been activated and there's a good chance to keep them active, and that's terribly important to rebuild our democracy," said Eric Kingson, a congressional candidate in upstate New York who has also received an endorsement and fundraising email from Sanders. Kingson said that the day of Sanders' email, he received over 5,000 individual donations, whereas the most he had previously received in one day was fewer than 30.

Along with Pearson and Kingson, Sanders has raised funds for a number of congressional and state-level candidates to a degree unprecedented in presidential campaigns. Indeed, as Sanders slows down his campaign, he has continued to raise funds for other candidates as recently as Saturday.

Most of Sanders' email fundraising has gone through ActBlue, an organization that provides a popular fundraising platform for candidates on the left. Its executive director, Erin Hill, said Sanders marked the first presidential campaign she's ever seen split donations with down-ballot candidates in the middle of an election.

Hill said the Sanders campaign is "among the largest committees" ActBlue has ever worked with, and that a lot of Sanders' donors are saving their information with ActBlue through its express program to allow for easier donating in the future.

With many Sanders' supporters now registered with ActBlue, and their names distributed to the lower-level candidates they have donated to, the Sanders network has the potential to remain a political force.

In assessing the potential future of the network of Sanders supporters, one organization brought up by experts as a point of comparison is Democracy for America, which emerged from Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid and endorsed Sanders in this year's Democratic primaries.

Mitch Stewart, the battleground states director for President Barack Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, said the Sanders effort has the possibility of being "DFA-like on steroids."

"He certainly has all the ingredients for a really powerful grassroots infrastructure if he wants to maintain it," Stewart said. "Not only for fundraising but just for volunteering, I hope the impressive list he's been able to build is utilized during these next six months because it's needed and there's a lot at stake."

Multiple experts and candidates stressed that the supporters Sanders has mobilized represent high-value names who have proved willing to donate and volunteer for liberal causes.

"He certainly has all the ingredients for a really powerful grassroots infrastructure if he wants to maintain it. ... Not only for fundraising but just for volunteering, I hope the impressive list he's been able to build is utilized during these next six months because it's needed and there's a lot at stake." -Mitch Stewart, battleground states director, Obama for president, 2012

Along with electing other like-minded candidates to office, Sanders' supporters may also play an active role in shaping policy change both within the Democratic Party and in the United States Senate, where Sanders serves as the ranking member of the budget committee and appears positioned to become chairman should the Democrats retake the chamber's majority.

Neil Sroka, communications director of Democracy for America, said that if Sanders becomes chairman of the Senate budget committee, he would have "a grassroots army of millions behind him" as he pushes his agenda.

"I think that Bernie Sanders and his supporters are going to continue to focus on the issues that have driven the campaign," Sroka said. "[What's] going to be the real legacy of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign is the degree to which the people on his email list continue to take action and further the political revolution that they started. ... And I think that's going to happen."

Sroka added that many supporters of Sanders' agenda will likely run for office themselves at some point, and together represent the future of the Democratic Party.

Transitioning support from Sanders' presidential campaign to whatever comes next will be challenging, Sroka said. Stewart said it would take significant resources and staff to continue.

However, Democrats say they are hopeful the supporters Sanders has connected will remain involved in the political process.

"What Bernie's campaign has done across the country is connect like-minded people who are in some ways starved for like-minded voices at every level of state government," Pearson said. "I hope it will have an impact long after Bernie's campaign comes to a close."