Sen. Bernie Sanders sought to use a rally in Minneapolis on Sunday to recapture the energy that fueled his landslide victory in the Minnesota DFL presidential caucus four years ago, even as he faces a rising progressive rival in Sen. Elizabeth Warren and a recent health scare.
With early state contests in Iowa and New Hampshire fast approaching and the Minnesota presidential primary on March 3, Sanders broadened his message beyond the economic populism that has been his hallmark for decades.
He drew a tight connection to Rep. Ilhan Omar, who introduced Sanders after endorsing him in October. Sanders cast the election as a contest between a civic religion of love of neighbor — including those not like us — and what he described as the divisive politics of President Donald Trump.
“We understand that we are stronger, healthier and happier as human beings when we reach out to others as human beings and understand that we are all in this together,” Sanders said at the rally that filled the lower bowl of the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena.
Even as the 78-year-old Vermont senator worked the crowd with an appeal against bigotry and a wish list of progressive priorities on health care, education, economics and energy, Sanders will likely face a tougher contest than his commanding Minnesota victory in 2016 over eventual nominee Hillary Clinton.
Unlike then, Warren is making a case for the progressive voters who are Sanders’ base, and polls show her appeal is working both nationally and in key early states.
Warren and Sanders both support Medicare for All, which would extend America’s socialized health insurance for seniors to people of all ages. Both already have paid staff and a crew of volunteers working for them on the ground in Minnesota.
In previous years, the state determined who won its delegates with caucuses, which tend to be populated by hard-core activists.
But Minnesota will have a presidential primary in 2020, which should mean higher turnout. Vice President Joe Biden, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar — if she is still in the race — each have potential pockets of strength in Minnesota.
In addition to contending with a bigger field than 2016, Sanders must also reassure Democratic voters that he is up to the job after he recently suffered a heart attack. A Washington Post poll published Sunday found that more than 4 in 10 Democrats say he is not in good enough health to serve as president.
Don’t count Aloni Cruz among them.
Cruz, 20, was first in line for the evening Sanders rally, arriving at 6 a.m., three hours before the next people, with a bag of snacks.
“I just really wanted a chance to meet him,” said the University of St. Thomas student, who said she identifies with his life story.
She is the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, while Sanders’ father came to the United States as a Jewish immigrant from what is now Poland. “He’s been fighting for working-class people for a long time.”
As for Sanders’ health problems, “he bounced back really fast,” the south Minneapolis resident said. “It showed his commitment to the campaign, and to us.”
Sanders’ endorsements from Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Omar show a new ability to reach a crucial demographic in the race: Women of color.
“People say Ilhan and I make an odd political couple, but in fact there’s nothing odd about it,” said Sanders, who identifies himself as a democratic socialist. “Ilhan and I share a common link as the descendants of families who fled violence and poverty, and who came to this country as immigrants.”
Candace Bunyan, 25, a kindergarten teacher who lives in Crystal, said Sanders appeals to her as a woman of color. “He’s talking about teachers and blue-collar workers and not about the rich getting more rich,” she said.
Republicans, meanwhile, have seized on the Democrats’ leftward steps toward socialized health insurance and a more generous package of government benefits like free college, saying they would mean higher taxes on middle-income Americans.
Before the rally, Jennifer Carnahan, chairwoman of the Republican Party in Minnesota, said Sanders and Omar were in town to “spread their radical proposals.”
“While it is clear that Omar, Sanders and the Squad have taken over the Democrat Party, Minnesotans deserve their elected officials to stand up against these dangerous policies,” she said, using the nickname for four liberal congresswomen. “Their extreme, socialist agenda will bankrupt America, all at the expense of middle-class families.”
J. Patrick Coolican • 651-925-5042