POLITICS
03/22/2019 08:00 EDT | Updated 03/22/2019 15:07 EDT

The Curious Link Between Bernie Sanders And Beto O’Rourke

The former Texas congressman has attracted some key talent from Sanders’ first presidential bid. Why?

Reuters/Brian Snyder
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on March 21. Some veterans of the 2016 presidential bid by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) are in O'Rourke's corner.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) hail from opposite sides of the country, are separated by more than three decades in age and represent different ends of the Democratic Party’s ideological spectrum. What they do share, apparently, is a knack for small-dollar fundraising.

In the first 24 hours after announcing his bid, O’Rourke raised $6.1 million from 128,000 individual contributions ― a figure that can include multiple gifts from the same donors. That sum beat Sanders’ first-day haul of $5.9 million from over 223,000 contributors. While Sanders’ small-donor appeal, tried and tested during his 2016 presidential bid, was a known asset going into this election cycle, O’Rourke’s initial fundraising prowess has surprised some observers.

It is no coincidence that the two candidates sit atop the 2020 fundraising primary.

O’Rourke first showcased his success in attracting small donors and volunteers during his 2018 Senate run, when he raised $80 million in what became the most expensive congressional election in history. A number of former Sanders staffers were key to this record haul.

O’Rourke tapped Middle Seat, a digital strategy firm founded by Sanders 2016 alumni Hector Sigala and Kenneth Pennington, to run his online fundraising and advertising. That firm, under Sigala’s direction, has returned for O’Rourke’s presidential run.

So have Becky Bond, who helped create Sanders’ “distributed” (volunteer-based) organizing team in 2016, and Zack Malitz, who ran Sanders’ digital operation in Texas in 2016. The pair led O’Rourke’s grassroots organizing program in 2018. 

All of the progressive energy is in the Sanders campaign. If you’re a progressive, that’s where you want to be.RoseAnn DeMoro, former executive director, National Nurses United

The distributed organizing model has been credited for providing the Sanders campaign with the infrastructure to harness a massive volunteer base, saving it the expense of hiring more paid field organizers. Since 2016, veterans of this effort have gone on to work for some of the country’s best-known progressive candidates and organizations, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Justice Democrats, a left-wing group that helped get her elected.

Sanders’ 2020 campaign has managed to retain other veterans of his 2016 digital fundraising efforts, including Tim Tagaris and Robin Curran, who have returned as overseers of online fundraising. The campaign has also signed up Claire Sandberg, who worked alongside Bond and Malitz in 2016, as its national organizing director.

The presence of former Sanders staffers on O’Rourke’s 2018 campaign raised few eyebrows at the time. The Texas race was one of the nation’s marquee Senate contests, and Our Revolution, the Sanders-affiliated organization that grew out of his presidential run, endorsed O’Rourke’s bid.

The same can’t be said about the 2020 race. Several Sanders supporters expressed puzzlement or dismay to HuffPost that their colleagues from 2016 would offer their talents to O’Rourke, who they noted is not even the second-most-progressive candidate in the field, after Sanders. Some even characterized the choice to work for O’Rourke as an abandonment of previously professed principles.

“I hope that they would re-evaluate, obviously,” said RoseAnn DeMoro, a former executive director of the National Nurses United labor union, which endorsed Sanders in 2016 but has yet to back a candidate for 2020. “All of the progressive energy is in the Sanders campaign. If you’re a progressive, that’s where you want to be.”

“We are at a time when the priority for anyone who considers themselves a progressive is not just to defeat Donald Trump but to defeat Trumpism and what created the situation that would lead to the election of a person like Trump,” said another progressive strategist who worked in Sanders’ Senate office and declined to be named for professional reasons.

ASSOCIATED PRESS/Richard Vogel
Sanders greets workers at a rally at UCLA on March 20. He and O'Rourke share a knack for small-dollar fundraising.

The strategist argued that O’Rourke’s history of more centrist economic positions made him a poorer fit for the moment.

For example, as a Democratic House candidate in 2012, O’Rourke expressed openness to raising the Social Security retirement age, though he now says he opposes it. More recently, he voted against bills that would raise the age and is a co-sponsor of legislation to expand Social Security benefits.

Some Sanders allies expressed doubt that Sanders-style grassroots organizing would succeed when divorced from his populist philosophy. A veteran of his 2016 effort who is not planning to work for a presidential campaign this time around told HuffPost, “There’s no question that [the Sanders alumni working for O’Rourke] knew how to organize and use this process on the Sanders campaign.

“The question is, can you use it behind a limp noodle of a candidate?” continued the former Sanders staffer, who asked for anonymity for professional reasons. “I don’t know that you can.”

O’Rourke’s appeal in 2018 was rooted at least partly in Democrats’ disdain for the Republican he was challenging, Sen. Ted Cruz, the former campaign aide noted.

The former Sanders Senate staffer framed it more delicately. “What made it easy to get volunteers in 2016 was that people were fired up about [Sanders’] vision and the message. It had nothing to do with Bernie the person,” the former aide said. “Are Democrats willing to do that for someone who explicitly doesn’t support ‘Medicare for all’?”

Neither Bond nor Sigala responded to requests for comment for this story.

We are proud of our association with Becky Bond, and vilification of her by others for her work is, frankly, ludicrous.Chuck Idelson, spokesman, National Nurses United

In an email exchange with HuffPost for a story in December, Bond shared a statement she had provided to The New York Times explaining why she committed to joining an O’Rourke presidential bid, months before he announced. She cited his dedication to immigration rights and racial justice, as well as his dynamic, grassroots style of campaigning.

“He has shown he truly cares about everyone, their families, their future,” she said. “He’s not just the kind of candidate who can win. He’s the kind of candidate we want to win with.”

Several people familiar with Sigala’s and Pennington’s experiences on the 2016 Sanders campaign said the organizers had personal differences with Jeff Weaver, who ran Sanders’ campaign in 2016 and is a senior adviser to his 2020 bid. Sigala and Pennington were part of a crew of Sanders alumni who in August 2016 resigned from Our Revolution because of their objections to Weaver’s leadership of the organization.

Malitz, a Texas native, has, by contrast, not had any public falling out with figures in Sanders’ inner circle.

Skeptics note, however, that even the nastiest of disputes can be overcome when there is a will. Sandberg was also part of the contingent that quit Our Revolution, but she has mended her relationship with Weaver enough to return to Sanders’ team. 

What’s more, O’Rourke, a business-friendly Democrat with a history of supporting free trade agreements, is not the most natural alternative to Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primary field. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for example, is widely viewed as the candidate whose populist bona fides are closest to Sanders’.

“Consultants are going to be consultants. They’re going to go where there is fundraising capacity, where they can get the largest retainer,” said the former Sanders Senate staffer. “Beto has clearly shown that he can outraise [California’s Sen. Kamala] Harris and Warren, so people are going to follow the money.” 

The contrast is clearest when it comes to single-payer health care: Sanders’ 2016 bid launched “Medicare for all” into the Democratic mainstream, but in three terms in the House, O’Rourke did not co-sponsor any single-payer bills. In 2018, as a Senate candidate, O’Rourke said he would sign on to Sanders’ single-payer bill if elected. He even proclaimed himself a proponent of “Medicare for all” to raise money through online advertisements.

Beto O'Rourke Senate Campaign
In three terms in the House, O’Rourke did not co-sponsor any single-payer health care bills. In 2018, as a Senate candidate, he said he would sign on to Sanders’ single-payer bill if elected.

Now as a presidential candidate, O’Rourke has shifted his stance again to more closely resemble his position as a member of the House. Within days of announcing his presidential run, he clarified that he prefers an alternative universal coverage plan that would expand Medicare access while allowing Americans to keep coverage through their jobs.

Meanwhile, other competitive Democratic candidates, including Harris, have spoken more favorably about pursuing single-payer. 

Referring to the Sanders alumni who have joined O’Rourke’s team, DeMoro said she could not speculate about their motives.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen people switch sides throughout history. I mean, look at David Brock, for example,” she said. Brock, a Republican operative in the 1990s, became an aggressive Democratic strategist and Hillary Clinton loyalist in subsequent decades.

But, DeMoro added, “I do know that they cared about single-payer.”

That puzzles her because O’Rourke is “trying to derail ‘Medicare for all,’” she said. “As a leftist myself, I’m pretty stunned by that.” 

Bond, a former longtime organizer for the progressive phone company Credo, consults for National Nurses United’s nationwide grassroots campaign to advance single-payer health care. On her Twitter account, she continued to sport the rose emoji associated with the pro-single-payer Democratic Socialists of America after O’Rourke’s comments expressing opposition to the idea. After a torrent of criticism from prominent socialists like Bhaskar Sunkara, she deactivated the account.

Becky Bond
On her Twitter account, Bond continued to sport the rose emoji associated with the pro-single-payer Democratic Socialists of America after O’Rourke expressed opposition to the idea. After a torrent of criticism, she deactivated the account.

Asked whether O’Rourke’s disavowal of “Medicare for all” would prompt the union to reconsider its relationship with Bond, NNU spokesman Chuck Idelson suggested it would not.

“We continue to work with Becky Bond who has done exemplary work for our Medicare for all grassroots organizing campaign in which we have mobilized tens of thousands of volunteers, including many registered nurses, to participate in phone calls, door knocking, and community events that has expanded the number of co-sponsors of [the single-payer bill in the House] and continues to build momentum for Medicare for all,” he said. “We are proud of our association with Becky Bond and vilification of her by others for her work is frankly ludicrous.”

The union’s presidential endorsement process is months away, according to Idelson. But DeMoro predicted that rank-and-file members would back Sanders, regardless of whether the union offers its official blessing.

“The individual nurses are solidly for Bernie. I don’t see any deviation from that,” DeMoro said.

In addition, Sigala’s Middle Seat has done work for Justice Democrats, which ardently backs “Medicare for all” and has made support for the policy a requirement for its endorsement. Middle Seat’s involvement arguably poses less of a conflict, since strategy firms routinely consult for clients with different agendas, provided that they do not explicitly contradict one another’s interests. 

Justice Democrats declined to comment when asked whether it would continue to use Middle Seat. 

The Sanders campaign declined to comment as well on the impact of the 2016 alumni’s move.

Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist who has worked with Sigala, is giving Bond, Malitz and Sigala the benefit of the doubt.

“What Beto built this summer in Texas is really impressive. For a lot of people on that team, it makes sense to want to continue the work and build a movement,” Katz said.

“I don’t know what he stands for,” she added. “Maybe they know something we don’t.”

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