MONTPELIER — With about five weeks to go before the general election, some Vermont Democrats are wondering why U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders is sitting on the sidelines of what appears to be a toss-up election for governor.
Sanders, the state’s junior senator who saw a meteoric rise in popularity during his failed effort to topple Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary, has personally endorsed Chittenden County Sen. David Zuckerman, who won the nomination of both the Democratic and Progressive Parties. But Sanders has remained silent in the race for governor, where Democrat Sue Minter is engaged in a battle with Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Scott.
Sanders, who is in the process of writing a book, launched a political group, Our Revolution, after the presidential primary that has endorsed some progressive candidates around the country. But Minter and the Vermont Democratic Party have yet to see Sanders use his personal star power or his political group to their benefit, something that is beginning to cause some consternation.
“He’s still our Vermont senator, so we’d love to see him play a role in this race,” said Conor Casey, executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.
The party, so far, has been snubbed after sticking its neck out for Sanders during the presidential primary. Vermont Democratic Party Chairwoman Dottie Deans and Vice Chairman Tim Jerman were among the first superdelegates to publicly back Sanders as Clinton’s superdelegate support began to grow out of reach.
And the Vermont Democratic Party’s delegation to the Democratic National Convention in July went out of its way to accommodate Sanders, including allowing Sanders to nominate Clinton by acclamation when it was time to cast their nominating votes — a moment designed to show unity between Sanders and Clinton after a sometimes testy primary.
Casey said party officials believe there is still time for Sanders to turn his attention back to his home state.
“I think we’re still hopeful that we’ll see more endorsements coming out from Bernie. We know it’s been a tough road, the campaign, but we agree with his concept of a political revolution and believe in some respects that it should start at home in Vermont. There’s a number of candidates in the state that very much share Bernie’s vision, and I think if you look at the governors’ race, I think Sue Minter’s platform resembles Bernie’s,” Casey said.
Scott, meanwhile is “the antithesis of what Bernie was running on,” and should serve as a catalyst for Sanders to get involved, according to Casey.
“Scott may be more moderate than the rest of the country but is not a candidate who fits the mold of Bernie Sanders,” he said.
It’s unclear why Sanders has ignored Minter’s campaign. Minter, who declined to comment for this story through a spokesperson, endorsed Sanders in the presidential primary, but not until the day of the Vermont primary on Super Tuesday. Minter’s main primary opponent, former Windsor County state Sen. Matt Dunne, cloaked his campaign with Sanders’ policies and endorsed Sanders early on. Sanders’ campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, endorsed Dunne.
Generally, Minter is seen as more moderate than Sanders, although she has embraced variations of some of his policies, including a $15 per hour minimum wage and two-years of free college tuition at the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.
Michael Briggs, a top aide and spokesman in Sanders’ Senate office who worked on the presidential campaign and has since returned to the Senate office, offered little insight.
Briggs declined to say if Sanders believes Minter represents his values, or whether the senator believes Minter can win. He said Sanders is “concentrated on doing all he can to help Hillary Clinton,” noting Sanders is making campaign appearances this week in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Maine.
“It’s just that he’s been focused on other things for now. He’ll continue to size up the situation and he’ll be happy to talk about that later,” Briggs said.
Sanders is not concerned that his extended travel for candidates outside of Vermont — at the expense of attention paid to Vermont races — will be a drag on him, according to Briggs.
“He is the highest regarded member of the entire U.S. Senate by people in their home states,” Briggs said.
Zuckerman, who was endorsed by Sanders, is not aware of any additional steps Sanders plans to take to support his own campaign.
“So far I haven’t heard about too much more going on. That initial endorsement is certainly greatly appreciated. I continue to meet people around the state who support me and are excited about his endorsement,” Zuckerman said.
Zuckerman received his endorsement at the tail end of the primary as he sought to defeat Democratic House Speaker Shap Smith — the choice of establishment Democrats in Vermont. The last-minute support from Sanders likely helped move undecided voters in Zuckerman’s favor.
The endorsement may have come at the tail end of the primary but it took months of work, Zuckerman said, and now there are “many people across the country tugging at his sleeves.”
“Bernie is extraordinarily busy and sought after all across the country,” he said. “It took me six to eight months to receive his endorsement.”
Sanders’ financial support of the Vermont Democratic Party has also waned this election cycle. According to Federal Election Commission records, Sanders’ Senate campaign committee, Friends of Bernie Sanders, gave the Vermont Democratic Party $40,000 during the 2014 election cycle. So far in 2016 it has not provided any contributions to the state party.
Meanwhile, a leadership PAC associated with Sanders, Progressive Voters of America, contributed $5,000 to the Vermont Democratic Party in September. The PAC gave $3,500 to the VDP in the 2014 cycle and $2,500 in 2008, according to Opensecrets.org.
Briggs did not rule out the possibility of more endorsements, but would not say if Minter is being considered.
“That’s something that we’ll be happy to talk about down the road,” Briggs said. “His focus this week is helping Secretary Clinton, and Democrats in Vermont and around the country seem to appreciate that,” Briggs said. “We’ll take a look at other races as the campaigns go on.”
Casey said Sanders’ support will help but the party and its candidates are focused on winning races without it.
“I think we’re incredibly confident at this point that any of our candidates can win this election on their own merits, but obviously the support of our junior senator would be welcome,” Casey said. “We’ve been looking at the history of it. Generally, he sort of has weighed in at the end. I don’t think he’s running away. I think there’s a focus on some other races across the country and I think he deserves some down time after running for over a year.”