Democrats across the board are embracing the policies of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., - Medicare for all, legal marijuana and free college - but primary results underscore that the 2016 presidential candidate is struggling to emerge as a kingmaker in the party.
Liberals on Tuesday defeated an establishment-backed House candidate in Nebraska, a mainstream gubernatorial candidate in Idaho and a conservative House candidate in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. Sanders was not involved in the first two races and endorsed a runner-up in the third.
Instead, two House candidates backed by Sanders in Pennsylvania lost on the same night to candidates who supported his position of health care for all.
After 2016, Sanders was the hottest commodity in Democratic politics as he captured 43 percent of the primary vote and pushed eventual nominee Hillary Clinton to the left. But since then, his role in the party has become a bit more complicated. He is on the road constantly, selling his populist message and clearly putting together the building blocks of a 2020 presidential campaign.
While Sanders hasn't dominated the Democratic Party, his ideas have made huge inroads.
"What Bernie's doing now is seeding what we're going to do in November," said Rep. RaÃºl Grijalva, D-Ariz., one of a handful of congressmen who endorsed Sanders for president. "Even in those districts where somebody's going to lose, you've got to keep people activated. It's a different kind of trickle-down."
Sanders-backed candidates are 10 for 21 this election cycle, while 46 of the 134 who had the support of Our Revolution, the group Sanders started after his presidential bid, triumphed. There have been some notable losses, including Tom Perriello in Virginia's Democratic primary for governor last year and gubernatorial hopeful Dennis Kucinich in Ohio this month, who was backed by Our Revolution but not Sanders.
"It's true that Bernie Sanders' endorsement does not automatically mean you win," said Neil Sroka, the communications director for Democracy for America, another liberal group. "But when you are supporting inclusive populist candidates against the party establishment, the lift you have is much higher."
The result is a bench of candidates who owe little to Sanders personally - and do not inherit his feuds with the party establishment - but endorse his strategy of motivating liberal voters instead of tacking right. Democratic strategists say that is partly by design, as Sanders has focused more on transforming Democratic orthodoxy than on promoting the party.
The idea of expanding Medicare to cover all Americans, a Democratic outlier in 2016, has been embraced by a majority of House Democrats and most of the Democratic senators considering a presidential bid. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., recently endorsed legalizing marijuana across the country, and Democrats have largely signed on to the idea of new federal subsidies to pay all or part of the cost of higher education.
The shift is also evident in campaigns further down the ballot. A study by political consulting firm Kingston Creative found that Medicare for all was supported in campaign materials by 271 of the 561 non-incumbent Democratic candidates for Congress who had raised at least $1,000 by the end of last year.
"Ideas that were fringe are now in the mainstream of the Democratic Party," said Sanders's 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver, who consults with the senator on political endorsements. "You see it not just in primaries around the country; you see it in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential campaign."
Sanders declined to be interviewed for this article.
In 2016, as an insurgent presidential candidate, Sanders won 13.7 million votes in the Democratic Party - more than President Donald Trump won as he secured the Republican nomination. As the sole serious challenger to Clinton, he shifted the party platform to the left, and brought different elements of the left into a coalition.
"One of the things that has become apparent is that there is a fair amount of that 43 percent that just wanted an alternative to Hillary Clinton and weren't really voting for him," said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank. "They were looking for something. There really [weren't] alternatives."
That energy is more diffuse now, with Democrats who sat out the 2016 race signing onto Sanders's legislation, and candidates inspired by his campaign running in the same primaries. While Sanders won 60 percent of the vote in 2016's New Hampshire primary - a historic defeat for Clinton - polls taking an early look at the 2020 contest have found a closer race, with former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., both in contention.
Sanders travels the country as the outreach chairman for Senate Democrats and has been regularly holding policy briefings on such topics as poverty and the power of large technology companies in what amounts to a continuation of his 2016 campaign. The night before Tuesday's primaries, Sanders hosted a town hall on foreign policy that 600,000 viewers watched online.
"He's more interested in changing the party than being seen as a leader in it," said one Democratic strategist who has closely followed his activities.
Sanders has endorsed candidates in five primaries and three general- or special-election races. His first primary victory came in Pennsylvania on Tuesday. John Fetterman, a 6-foot-8-inch bearded, tattooed populist who became nationally known for working to bring business to his adopted city of Braddock, Pennsylvania, easily defeated Lt. Gov. Mike Stack.
Fetterman, who had run unsuccessfully for the party's 2016 Senate nomination, had more party leaders behind him in 2018, including former governor Ed Rendell. But in the final days of the campaign, he held his largest rally with Sanders, telling voters that he'd work to end mass incarceration, legalize marijuana and bring universal health-care coverage to Pennsylvania.
"He's the most popular Democrat in the country," Fetterman said.
In Pennsylvania, two other Sanders-backed candidates for Congress lost: Greg Edwards, a pastor running from Allentown, and Rich Lazer, a former deputy mayor in Philadelphia.
"Bernie will keep supporting strong progressive candidates," said Ari Rabin-Havt, a senior adviser to Sanders. "If all you care about is picking sure winners, thankfully the Supreme Court ruled to legalize sports betting this week, so there will be plenty of opportunities for that."
Lazer, who got Sanders' support after labor unions endorsed him, was opposed by the local chapters of Our Revolution. In Philadelphia, Our Revolution backed Molly Sheehan, a scientist who was furious that Sanders went with another candidate.
"One of the reasons I liked Bernie was that I thought he understood power dynamics," Sheehan said. "I thought he understood that machine politics, regardless of who they back, fail everybody."
In the Pennsylvania races where Sanders made no endorsement, like-minded candidates triumphed. Madeleine Dean, a state legislator who was nominated in a Philadelphia-area seat, embraced "Medicare for All," as did Mary Gay Scanlon in her victory over Lazer. At a candidate forum, Scanlon joined every other Democrat in saying she would work to abolish the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In Tuesday's other primary states, the more Sanders-like candidates similarly came out on top. Brad Ashford, a one-term Democratic congressman who had been one of the caucus's more conservative members, lost the primary for his old seat to Kara Eastman, a nonprofit organization director running on Medicare for all,legalization of marijuana and free college tuition for most families.
And in Idaho, state legislator Paulette Jordan won the Democratic nomination for governor over A.J. Balukoff, the party's 2014 nominee. Our Revolution had endorsed Jordan, who told voters that she favored Medicaid expansion and that legalizing marijuana could increase the state's tax base. In January, she spoke at the launch of the Women's March get-out-the-vote campaign - another source of left-wing energy in the party.