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Does Bernie Sanders' Endorsement Matter? Even The Vermont Senator Is Skeptical


Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will remind you he's not a Democrat. Since his 2016 presidential run, Sanders has focused on bringing more independents like himself into the party. Many of the candidates he has endorsed in Democratic primaries this year are not faring well, but Sanders tells NPR congressional correspondent Scott Detrow that wins and losses don't measure what he's accomplishing.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Does Bernie Sanders' endorsement matter? Even Bernie Sanders seems skeptical.

BERNIE SANDERS: The issue here is not that I think a Bernie Sanders endorsement or frankly the endorsement of anybody else is some magical potion to get people elected.

DETROW: Sanders says what he's really trying to do is encourage first-time candidates to run for office. Last month, Sanders campaigned in Pennsylvania for Democrat Greg Edwards, who was running in a crowded House primary. Edwards says there's no question that helped.

GREG EDWARDS: It did a lot of good for our campaign, increased my name ID. It helped me get volunteers, helped with fundraising certainly. And we got a lot of media attention out of it. I think we probably got four or five press hits.

DETROW: But that help only went so far. Edwards ended up coming in third. Only two Sanders-endorsed House candidates have won contested primaries, and one of them was an incumbent.

SANDERS: You see; that's a stupid argument. I can be a hundred percent in terms of my endorsements. All you got to do is endorse the establishment candidates who have a whole lot of money, who are 40 points ahead in the poll. You know what? You'll come and say, Bernie, you were a hundred percent supportive of these candidates. They all won. The candidates that we support by and large with few exceptions are candidates who are taking on the establishment, who are often outspent.

DETROW: Sanders says he's still focused on the larger goal of building a movement and opening up the party to independents and outsiders.

SANDERS: You know, I hope they win. Maybe they don't. But if you get 45 percent of the vote now, next time you may well win. But you got to start somewhere.

DETROW: One Sanders-backed winner - John Fetterman, who took out an incumbent in a crowded statewide primary for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor.

JOHN FETTERMAN: I don't care who you are, but, you know, when somebody says, please hold for Senator Sanders and then you hear his voice on the line going, hey, John - you know, you're just like, oh, my gosh.

DETROW: Fetterman had hoped for a Sanders endorsement in 2016 when he ran and lost in Pennsylvania's Senate primary. That call never came, and the political landscape has shifted a lot since then.

FETTERMAN: I'm proud to say that what I ran on in 2016 didn't change in 2018. It wasn't - you know, these things are becoming more and more part of the Democratic mainstream.

DETROW: These things being the types of policies candidates like Greg Edwards campaigned on this spring.

EDWARDS: Universal health care, Medicare for All, around universal preschool, around debt-free college, you know, around increasing the minimum wage from 7.25 to 15.

DETROW: Sanders and his allies like 2016 campaign manager Jeff Weaver say that matters much more than a win-loss record.

JEFF WEAVER: You know, many of these issues were considered fringe issues, and now they are mainstream issues. And we take for granted that there of course are legions of Democratic candidates running on those platforms. The Democratic national platform also includes many of those planks.

DETROW: Sanders agrees.

SANDERS: I think we have had real success in moving the ideology of the Democratic Party to be a pro-worker party, to stand up to the billionaire class. We've got a long way to go.

DETROW: Even if many of his handpicked candidates are coming up short, more of the Democrats who are winning are lining up closer to Bernie Sanders anyway. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.