After Nevada Win, Sanders Claims 'Uniter' Mantle

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LAS VEGAS -- The rhetorical shift from insurgent to standard-bearer was sharp and unmistakable. On the eve of Bernie Sanders’ resounding victory in the Nevada caucuses, the self-described democratic socialist senator was still stoking his populist revolt from the Democratic mainstream.

“We’re taking on the whole damn 1% -- Donald Trump and the Republican establishment — and we’re taking on the Democratic establishment,” Sanders told more than 2,000 supporters gathered Friday evening for a final outdoor rally here before caucus voting began the next morning.

“You may have noticed lately — the establishment is getting a little nervous,” he added.

It’s remarks like those that helped fuel the “feel the Bern” movement that propelled Sanders from obscure Senate backbencher to giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money in Democratic nominating contest four years ago. But with the big win in Nevada, Sanders eclipsed Joe Biden as the Democratic front-runner, earning more than twice as many votes as the former vice president and attracting a diverse coalition of supporters spanning nearly every voter demographic.

A new reality has now kicked in. Sanders is the man to beat in the Democratic Party’s 2020 campaign to defeat President Trump. The 78-year-old native New Yorker, who has represented Vermont for three decades in Washington while maintaining his anti-establishment cred, immediately started tailoring his messaging to fit the heady new role.

“Tonight is a historic victory because we won it in one of the most diverse states in the country,” Sanders told supporters gathered at his victory party. “We put together a coalition that is going to win all over America. ... We are going to win because we are bringing people together in a multi-generational, multi-racial campaign that will involve working people in the political process in a way we have never seen before.”

Before he could finish, the heavily Latino crowd broke into chants of “Si Se Puede” and “Not Me, Us,” a Sanders slogan many in the room had emblazoned on T-shirts they were wearing. There were group hugs, high-fives and remarks of near disbelief: “We won, we won!”

Just after Sanders finished offering his supporters a personal note of thanks, a new chant broke out: “Bernie beats Trump! Bernie beats Trump!”

The assertion sounded a little heady on the heels of a 27-point lead over Biden, but it was also understandable. With Sanders appearing poised to clinch a Silver State win, MSNBC host Chris Matthews spent this past week trashing him on the most liberal of the cable networks. Before Wednesday’s Democratic debate, Matthews said Sanders was “full of it,” would be a “miserable president” and would “lose 49 states,” calling for the other candidates to “go after” his socialist ideology or risk enabling four more years of Trump in the White House.

When Sanders carved out an early lead in the caucuses Saturday, Matthews likened it to the shock of France falling to Germany during WWII.

“It’s too late to stop him. … It’s over,” Matthews remarked. Although that remains to be seen, other pundits, such as CNN’s Dana Bash, repeatedly expressed the concerns of Democratic leaders in Washington that Sanders could easily cost the party control of the House and any hope of regaining the Senate. The hand-wringing led Van Jones to claim that the jaws of the Democratic “establishment” were “hanging off their faces.”

Former South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg issued a dire warning about Sanders’ early surge in the delegate chase. “Before we rush to nominate Sen. Sanders,” realize that he “believes in an inflexible, ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans,” Buttigieg argued in his Nevada concession speech.

Although ebullient for most of the night, Sanders supporters, hundreds of whom filled a funky, off-the-strip bar to celebrate, angrily rejected such characterizations, especially those coming from Matthews and his network.

“As a Jewish American, I find it incredibly offensive and anti-Semitic for a person who is supposed to be on a station that is the most progressive of the corporate media, to come out and say that Bernie Sanders victory in Nevada is somehow comparable to the Nazi Party usurping the national line in 1940,” said Gabriel Morantz, a 34-year-old Sanders supporter, told RealClearPolitics while sitting at an outdoor table at the Sanders victory party. “It’s horrifying and disgusting.”

Although Sanders rarely discusses religion himself, such comments were a reminder that he could not only be America’s first socialist president, he’d be the first Jewish presidential nominee of any major political party.

“[Sanders] is the first Jewish candidate that has been this close to clinching the nomination in any party in American history,” Morantz continued. “And he has family members who were killed by Nazis. It’s scary that [MSNBC] continues to promote [Matthews] and continues to allow [such statements] without any type of repercussion.”

Sanders’ supporters also emphasized that it wasn’t just “Bernie bros” who handed him the decisive victory in the most diverse state so far in the nominating process. His Nevada win reflected a broad cross-section of the party – those with college degrees, and those without, union members and non-union members, young people and voters in every age group except those over 65. Exit polls showed that the coalition included more than half of Hispanic voters, nearly four times as much support as Biden garnered. Even those Democrats who consider themselves moderate or conservative narrowly went for Sanders.

“Back in 2016, I supported Sanders because he seemed like a candidate who spoke to my values,” Adam Stuart Littman, chair of the Nevada Progressive Coalition, told RealClearPolitics. “Now it’s like we threw a party and everyone showed up.”

“It’s a different experience now that we have something to lose. Before it was always swimming uphill, fighting uphill,” he added. “Before they would discount him, the press wouldn’t cover him. Now everyone’s attacking.”

Jose La Luz, a longtime labor organizer and national Sanders surrogate, dismisses concerns that Sanders can’t beat Trump and will lose Democrats the House majority. “The only person who can actually beat a fake, right-wing populist is a real left-wing populist,” La Luz told RCP.

La Luz visited Las Vegas two times since the 2020 races began to help with Latino voter outreach. “We discovered by knocking doors and walking precincts and in the various events we participated in – we knew very early on that there was something very powerful going on here,” he said.  

The 69-year-old Puerto Rican labor activist is particularly gratified that rank-and-file members of the Culinary Workers Union, the largest labor group in the state and heavily Latino, didn’t follow their leaders in condemning Sanders’ support for “Medicare for All” over concerns that it would undermine decades of union negotiations over health insurance plans.

“Rank-and-file members of the culinary unions – Latinos and Latinas and Asians and Pacific Islanders, African Americans and other workers of color — decided they were not going to be told how to behave politically,” he told RCP Saturday night. “In many countries where they come from, there is, in fact, universal health care … and they understood that [their union-negotiated health plans] are only the floor for building something more.”

Just as Sanders’ was gaining momentum going into the caucus, the Culinary Workers Union leadership tried to step on the brakes. The union said it would not endorse in the caucus while escalating its criticism of Medicare for All. But much of the rank-and-file ended up defying their leadership. While they said they appreciate the union health care they have, they expressed concerns that many friends and relatives are far worse off, operating without insurance entirely or spending too much on the plans they have.

Along with Biden, President Trump tried to seize on pre-caucus flare-up between Sanders and the culinary union.

“A lot of Democrats are going to ruin the health care programs these unions have,” Trump told a boisterous rally he held in Las Vegas Friday afternoon. “The unions have worked hard on health care, and they’re going to ruin them. You’re going to lose 180 million people off of great private health care.”

Trump also claimed he would win Nevada in a landslide come November, after narrowly losing there to Hillary Clinton in 2016. But union control of workers has changed in Nevada as the state has continued trending Democratic over the last few years. Now even Trump’s top surrogates privately regard Minnesota, a state a GOP presidential candidate hasn’t won since 1972, as friendlier election territory.

All but one member of the Nevada congressional delegation is a Democrat and the state has two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor. There are now 165,000 more registered Democrats than in 2008, according to the U.S. Census. And 29% of the population is Latino.

“There is a great field operation at work here. There has been a breakthrough in the connection with Latino voters,” Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, an Illinois Democrat, told RCP at the Sanders rally Friday evening. “I think Latino voters are feeling very connected to the campaign – they know he’s really listening and someone who cares, and they’re fired up.”

Excitement was building throughout the Sanders camp in the days leading up to the caucuses, especially after former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s debate debut ended up  an embarrassing bust. Elizabeth Warren bloodied him with zingers and questions about the non-disclosure agreements women have signed after legal disputes with the billionaire businessman. But Saturday’s results showed, as some had noted beforehand, that her fire was misdirected. She helped let Sanders skate to a crushing  victory.

Bloomberg made a calculated decision not to compete in Nevada in favor of more delegate-rich Super Tuesday states where his hundreds of millions of dollars in ads would have more sway than traditional retail politics. Still, he couldn’t help but sound the alarms after the Sanders win and reissue his call for other Democratic candidates to drop out and consolidate around his campaign.

“The Nevada results reinforce the reality that this fragmented field is putting Bernie Sanders on pace to amass an insurmountable delegate lead,” Bloomberg campaign manager Kevin Sheekey said in a statement. “This is a candidate who just declared war on the so-called ‘Democratic Establishment.’ We are going to need Independents and Republicans to defeat Trump – attacking your own party is no way to get started. As Mike says, if we choose a candidate who appeals to a small base – like Senator Sanders – it will be a fatal error."

Little wonder why the Sanders camp holds Bloomberg in utter contempt. The night before the caucuses, the senator’s condemnation of Bloomberg's attempt to buy the election got louder boos than his mention of Trump just moments before.

Garcia said he understands why. Bernie bros and Sanders sisters have been “feeling the Bern” for four years now, he recalled. “You’re not just going to come in and undo the work we have done … just because you can afford to saturate the media,” he said.

Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.

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