POLITICS

Former Bernie Sanders Staffers Seek To Elect A 'Brand New Congress'

And they're going to need help from Republicans.

04/27/2016 01:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2016
Marcus Constantino/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to his supporters during his five-state primary night rally in West Virginia on April 26, 2016.

While even Bernie Sanders is starting to admit that his chance of winning the Democratic nomination is exceedingly slim, some of his former staff and volunteers have formed a political action committee dedicated to giving the senator “the ability to make real change from the White House.”

Brand New Congress, which was launched Monday, is looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections to "replace Congress all at once" with lawmakers who agree with the Vermont independent’s policy positions. The PAC won't be able to fully accomplish that goal in 2018, however, since just 468 of the 535 lawmakers in the House and Senate will be up for re-election.

A timeline on the PAC’s website says that it plans to form local search committees to recruit organizers and candidates who are new to politics. (Sanders, for his part, has served in Congress for 26 years.) The PAC says it will codify various progressive policies in a platform that its slate of candidates must support.

Zack Exley, one of the PAC’s founding organizers and a senior Sanders adviser until a few weeks ago, said Brand New Congress can accomplish its goals because Sanders has shown that grassroots candidates who weren't taken seriously in the past can recruit thousands of volunteers and raise tens of millions of dollars online. The senator has out-raised Clinton in each of the last three months, and has now matched her total fundraising haul, helping him stay in the race much longer than anyone anticipated before the primaries.

“We learned … that the grassroots are better qualified to run electoral campaigns than Democratic party operatives,” Exley told The Huffington Post in an email. “They just need to be given the tools, the data, the offices and the structure to succeed.”

Though it could be challenging to find Republican candidates who won’t flee from any affiliation with former Sanders supporters, the PAC hopes to recruit Republicans to run in districts hostile to Democrats.  

“We want a supermajority in Congress that is fighting for jobs, criminal justice reform and the environment,” Exley said. “Most Americans actually want that, and I think we get it by running Dems in blue areas, Republicans in deep red areas, and by running independents wherever we didn't defeat incumbents.”

The grassroots are better qualified to run electoral campaigns than Democratic party operatives ... They just need to be given the tools, the data, the offices and the structure to succeed. Zack Exley, Brand New Congress founding organizer

This task, of course, would require Republicans to back progressive values -- something they don’t appear eager to do. But Corbin Trent, another former Sanders staffer, said bringing Republicans on board is “the key to it being a successful idea” and there's enough overlap between Sanders’ platform and tea party conservatives to make the PAC's goals feasible.

Reality television star Donald Trump’s current status as the Republican front-runner demonstrates that GOP voters are eager for candidates who, like Trump, criticize the corrupting influence of money in politics and the impact of free trade deals on American workers, Trent said.

“This will allow Republicans to say ‘Yeah, I’m a Republican, but I believe climate change is real and I don’t believe all Muslims are terrorists,” he said. “It will allow people to think differently in the Republican Party if they want to pull away from the hate-based ideology.”

Despite the PAC's name, Brand New Congress organizers aren't necessarily suggesting that there aren't already progressives in Congress fighting for the group’s ideals. The PAC says it is not aiming to unseat lawmakers who would agree with their platform.

“People can tell who is a grassroots progressive and who is not,” said Pablo Menvielle, one of the PAC’s supporters and a staffer for law professor Tim Canova, who is challenging Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair, in Florida.

It's an open question whether the movement behind Sanders’ bid can remain cohesive beyond this year’s presidential primary. The senator’s allies are gathering in Chicago in mid-June to answer that question by delineating a “People’s Agenda.” But Brand New Congress organizers said they decided to launch their effort now to capitalize on the enthusiasm Sanders’ campaign has generated.

Given Sanders' grassroots base and huge email list, some Democrats have criticized him for fundraising on behalf of just three like-minded candidates this year. For instance, John Fetterman, a progressive mayor in Pennsylvania who placed third in Tuesday’s Democratic primary for the Senate but won a better-than-expected 20 percent of the vote, questioned why Sanders didn’t offer an endorsement.

But the Brand New Congress organizers said they didn’t fault Sanders for not doing more to boost the prospects of those who demonstrated a willingness to take on establishment Democrats this year.

“Bernie … has a lot on his plate right now, so I don't blame him or his campaign for not making more endorsements,” Menvielle said. “However, as the de facto leader of a political revolution, it would be great if he proceeded to endorse [Brand New Congress] candidates after this hectic election cycle.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Pablo Menvielle is a supporter of Brand New Congress, not an organizer. It also previously misstated that Fetterman was running for governor; he was running for the Democratic nomination to the Senate.

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