A growing slate of Democratic operatives and young progressive organizers who made their bones on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary campaign are lining up in 2018 behind another political insurgent, Michigan gubernatorial candidate Dr. Abdul El-Sayed.
Michigan was the site of what many in Berniecrat circles still consider their most emboldening 2016 victory. After trailing by double digits in most polls in the days and weeks leading up to the vote, Sanders narrowly defeated Hillary Clinton – a result that seemed to surprise him as much as anyone else – and reignited his flagging campaign.
The candidate profiles have changed, but a similar upset for El-Sayed – front-runner Gretchen Whitmer, a former state Senate minority leader, won a quick round of labor endorsements (though the United Auto Workers have remained notably uncommitted) and led heavily in early polling – would confirm to the Democratic left that its populist playbook for the upper Midwest, and possibly beyond, is a sustainable one.
Now, key members of the group that helped deliver Michigan to Sanders are returning, or hunkering down, to boost El-Sayed, the 33-year-old former Detroit Health Department leader described by activist and supporter Linda Sarsour as “our younger version of Bernie.”
Claire Sandberg, Sanders’ digital organizing director in 2016, joined El-Sayed this week as his deputy campaign manager. She had spent parts of the last six months in Europe, introducing campaign volunteer tactics similar to those used to great effect during the Vermont independent’s campaign, to left-wing groups like those backing the UK’s Labour Party ahead of the British elections last June.
“It’s great to be back in Michigan,” she said Wednesday night. “I spent a lot of time here on the Bernie campaign and met a lot of amazing volunteers who were active on that campaign, who are now active in the Abdul campaign.”
El-Sayed has also retained Middle Seat Digital, a firm founded by Sanders alums Kenneth Pennington, the campaign’s digital director in 2016, and Hector Sigala, who ran its booming social media apparatus. The campaign believes El-Sayed, who gained national notice for his work in Detroit, where he pioneered a program to offer free eye exams and, if necessary, glasses, to public school students, is uniquely positioned for viral stardom. (An opinion confirmed in part when former Obama speechwriter and liberal podcast host Jon Favreau retweeted an El-Sayed web video in October, adding: “Reminds me of someone I used to work for.”)
Sandberg estimates that 50% of potential voters who come out to see El-Sayed, who barnstormed the state after entering the race early last year, sign up to volunteer on his behalf. The campaign said it has held 150 town halls and meet-and-greets, visiting 95 cities in 46 counties during nearly a year on the stump. He’ll have another seven months to make his case, with the primary scheduled for August 7.
“He’s getting good responses in even very conservative parts of the state. But where the rubber hits the roads is whether he can get past his base, which right now is young, I would say predominantly college students, people of color – definitely focused in the Detroit area,” said Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics. “But he’s hoping to have that Bernie Sanders appeal, a populist economic appeal to people who are really sick of the system.”
For now, though, El-Sayed remains an unquestioned underdog. The favorite to win the nomination, Whitmer, was regarded during her time in office as one of the state’s most liberal lawmakers, as Democrats introduced a tuition-free college proposal and she led protests against an ultimately successful Republican plan to pass an anti-union, “right-to-work” law. (Whitmer has also outraised El-Sayed, with $2.3 million to his $1.6 million for the cycle. The campaigns haven’t yet reported their most recent quarterly hauls.)
El-Sayed is working to outflank Whitmer on the left with a plan to bring single-payer health care to the state. His supporters also point to Whitmer’s initial hesitance – she’s since committed – to back a $15 minimum wage as an opening for the campaign to connect with Michigan progressives.
Sandberg sees room to run – and an analog to what Sanders faced, and conquered, in Michigan two years ago.
“I think there’s a similar pattern here, where our biggest challenge is still that so many voters haven’t heard of Abdul,” she said. “But when they hear him speak and learn about his platform, they become supporters and often volunteers.”
A national surrogate and convention delegate for Sanders in 2016, before co-founding the Women’s March after President Donald Trump’s election, Sarsour has been active on the trail for El-Sayed, who was one of the few men to address the Women’s Convention in Detroit last year. Whitmer, who has the backing of former Sanders Democratic Party platform committee members Abby Dart and Lena Thompson, also spoke to the gathering.
Still, Sarsour is betting on El-Sayed, who would become the state’s first Muslim governor, to channel the political and organizational success that drew Michigan to Sanders.
“Abdul has a very similar platform to Bernie, so that’s one reason,” she said. “Also, the state of Michigan has attracted (staff and volunteers). Bernie Sanders won the greatest political upset in US history in Michigan. No one thought … Nate Silver, everybody, said this was unprecedented. So that also attracted us to the viability that a Bernie-type candidate can win the state of Michigan.”
Campaign manager Max Glass, who joined last May, has no direct ties to Sanders but worked as campaign manager for Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a vocal Sanders surrogate, in 2012, and helped deliver rising Democratic star Rep. Seth Moulton to Washington in 2014. During the 2016 cycle, he directed Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester’s historic bid to become the first woman and first African-American elected to Congress from Delaware.
Winnie Wong, co-founder of The People for Bernie Sanders – which has endorsed El-Sayed, as have a number of local Our Revolution chapters – and an outspoken progressive rabble-rouser, has been hired as a paid consultant to the campaign. She was introduced to El-Sayed, alongside Our Revolution President Nina Turner, by Sarsour in Detroit at the Women’s Convention.
“This is really a moment when we can test our ability to actually organize and put together the ‘A-team’ to get behind Abdul,” Wong said. “Hector (Sigala) and Kenneth (Pennington) actually transformed the grass-roots energy that was created by the grass roots into tangible action in 2016, whether that’s fundraising or generating and distributing content.”
Now, she added with a laugh, “We’re bringing the band back together.”