TEXAS DEMOCRATS DEBATE TRUMPETING SANDERS' TUNE
Posted January 3, 2018 4:52 p.m. EST
AUSTIN - To some, Bernie Sanders is the answer.
To others, he could be the problem.
As Texas Democrats prepare for 2018, Democratic hopefuls for all offices face a balancing act. Embracing Sanders supporters can tap a much-needed energy that 18 months ago turned a little-known self-proclaimed socialist from Vermont into a legitimate contender for the White House. But embrace the Sanders movement too much, and a candidate can quickly get labeled a socialist by Republican rivals in a general election - an albatross in parts of a red state like Texas.
While Sanders conceded the Democratic nomination for president in the summer of 2016, the followers he cultivated haven't gone home and have vowed to remain engaged in politics and reshape the Democratic Party and its platforms.
"This wasn't a one-shot deal," said Chris Kutalik-Couthren, a Sanders supporter who is now a statewide coordinator for Our Revolution Texas, a coalition of former Sanders supporters. "Many of us wanted to keep going."
They have since created nearly 500 chapters throughout the nation with a proclamation: Campaigns end. Revolutions endure.
The results have already shown themselves in local races, with Our Revolution helping recruit candidates and mobilize voters in local races for city councils in San Antonio and school board races in Houston. Now, 2018 offers a chance for the movement to impact congressional races.
"There's a different animal in the cage this time," said Jim Hightower, the former Texas agriculture commissioner who become one of Sanders' most prominent supporters.
Hightower said the Bernie Sanders movement highlights an economic populism that used to be the way Texas Democrats dominated with working men and women. Access to health care, college education and a healthy distrust of corporate greed are all elements of the Sanders rise to prominence that could be tools for Democrats in Texas to finally win back the state, he said.
"We reach out to real working stiffs and farmers," Hightower said. "We can turn people out."
It worked in San Antonio earlier this year. There, Our Revolution put its organizing skills on the front lines to help history teacher John Courage win an uphill battle to get on the city council in one of the city's more conservative districts.
On the campaign trail
In Houston this month, Our Revolution's national office endorsed Elizabeth Santos in the runoff election for the Houston ISD. That resulted in Our Revolution touting Santos on its social media sites and directing people to donate to her campaign. Santos won.
But in Dallas, the results were more mixed. First-time candidate Lori Kirkpatrick rode support from the Our Revolution group to nearly win a school board seat on the Dallas Independent School District earlier this year. But Republican activists fought back in a runoff election with mailers that slammed warned Kirkpatrick would bring "Bernie Sanders-style liberalism to Dallas Schools."
Few races reflect the challenge and potential more than the U.S. Senate race where Democrat Beto O'Rourke, a one time Hillary Clinton superdelegate, touts issues that sound like a page straight from a Sanders platform book.
O'Rourke touts Medicare for all, promises to be a champion for more affordable higher education that doesn't trap people in debt and talks up opposition to international trade deals that hurt the American worker - all issues Sanders talked about at length on the campaign trail.
And some of his biggest ovations have come from audiences when he declares his opposition to taking political action committee money and decries how big donors carry to much influence in politics - a staple of any Sanders speech.
But that's not enough to get him a pass from ardent Sanders supporters who remember he was a Clinton superdelegate during the presidential election that helped her secure the nomination in 2016.
At a rally in Austin in October, one of the first questions was from a Sanders supporter who grilled O'Rourke on why he voted for fast-tracking authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership when Sanders opposed it. O'Rourke explained that he thought fast tracking would give then-President Barack Obama the ability to negotiate the best deal for the U.S. without having to go through "regular order" and giving the Republican-dominated Congress more influence on the negotiations. Even so, O'Rourke told the crowd later he warned Obama that he would not support the TPP deal because of the poor wage protections for workers overseas.
At the same event, another Sanders supporter questioned why if O'Rourke believed in Medicare for all, he didn't sign on to the House bill that purports to do that. O'Rourke said he supported the idea but backed the Senate version touted by Sanders more because it was more of a pure expansion of Medicare.
While his campaign platform has a Sanders ring, O'Rourke said he's not trying pattern himself after the Vermont senator, Hillary Clinton or anyone else.
"I've never met Bernie Sanders," O'Rourke said. "I'm sure he's a wonderful person, and I'm grateful for his service."
He said he's just addressing issues that people from the Panhandle to Houston are talking about.
"Really, people care fundamentally about the same things," O'Rourke said, stressing economic issues like jobs, affording college, and health care costs.
Hightower said O'Rourke is definitely gaining momentum with the Our Revolution network.
No longer a death knell?
Cruz, for his part, has jumped at the opportunity to go head-to-head with Sanders over three debates over the last year on CNN. In October, Cruz seemed to relish Sanders' open use of the term "socialism."
"Now, one of the things I like about debating Bernie is he's honest," Cruz said during the debate. "When he ran in Vermont, he ran as a socialist, an unabashed socialist."
Hightower said while there was a time that throwing that word around could be a death knell for a Democrat in Texas, times are changing fast and there are a lot of places in Texas where it doesn't turn off voters like it once did.
"It's really not a word that scares people anymore," Hightower said.
He said what people are looking for in candidates is a more genuine approach - which he says is something O'Rourke has and something Our Revolution is uncovering around the state in other races.
There is no questioning that the Sanders campaign had an impact on Democratic politics, said Lillie Schechter, the leader of the Harris County Democratic Party.
"It has brought a lot of young people into the party," Schechter said. "It's also opened a dialogue on a lot of issues."
Kutalik-Couthren said victories in local races has only helped build optimism as the calendar turns to 2018.
"We're building a movement, a grassroots movement," he said. "The momentum is just growing as we get closer to the 2018 cycle."