How Bernie Sanders’ brand isn’t damaged, but rather enhanced, by Rob Quist and Heath Mello’s defeats
You can learn more about someone in a moment of adversity than in triumph. For Bernie Sanders lately, that phrase resonates firmly for the popular Vermont Senator’s latest public moves not resulting in victory for candidates in elections he has endorsed.
Sanders has now backed two losing Democratic candidates, in what turned out to be highly publicized local elections with national attention, this spring. Singer Rob Quist was defeated Thursday evening in the Montana at-large congressional special election to Republican (and WWE body slamming wannabe) Greg Gianforte. Quist joins Omaha, Nebraska, mayoral candidate Heath Mello as the candidates Sanders publicly stumped for recently, only for his endorsement not to garner them electoral success. Mello could not overcome Republican incumbent Jean Stothert two weeks ago, losing 53 to 47 percent.
Some feel that by candidly backing these candidates, only for them to not succeed in capturing office, Sanders had a lot riding on the Montana special election and could damage his most popular politician in America brand if Quist lost. They argue a legitimate point on face value: If Sanders’ brand is so strong that Democrats or liberal/left figures can win anywhere if he decides to stump for them, then why couldn’t Mello or Quist win? In particular, how couldn’t Quist overcome a man who just assaulted a reporter after Gianforte lost another election in Montana just a few months ago (more on that later)?
Based on that conclusion, one could easily muster the sentiment that the independent septuagenarian has limitations to his brand and isn’t popular enough for candidates having ideologies analogous to his to win in conservative towns and districts. Though that may be true, for now, there are two points that need to be made if you feel that way. If Sanders’ image isn’t good enough to secure wins in tight races against vulnerable Republicans or conservatives in their district, then no figure in either liberal/left politics or Democratic circles can make a difference between winning and losing these types of races. And most importantly, in Sanders’ case, the senator’s willingness to take a risk to his current popularity and still publicly endorse relatively anonymous, underdog candidates actually strengthens his noble brand.
This isn’t just vapid spin trying to excuse several losses. It would be vapid if this were professional sports, where moral defeats for the likes of Golden State Warriors’ superstars Steph Curry or Kevin Durant in next week’s NBA Finals are unacceptable. But contrary to some who still believe the phrase “politics is a tough sport,” this isn’t sports. This is about actual people’s lives.
For anybody looking at the complete picture and not just “the result,” the Montana at-large congressional race was a contest any Democrat would struggle to win. Despite Montana occasionally electing Democrats in recent times such as Senator Jon Tester, and Gianforte losing the governor’s race to Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock last November, the former software developer was polling ahead of Quist by 14 points before his attack on The Guardian’s Ben Jacobs. Trump won the state over Hillary Clinton by 20 points the same evening of Gianforte’s defeat to Bullock. Plus, Gianforte’s bodyslam on Jacobs didn’t happen 30 days before the election, but just 24 hours before polls closed.
Even with the body slam, and some Montana voters calling in to their Secretary of State office to try and change their already cast absentee vote (Montana law prohibits voters from changing their already-cast absentee ballot), other voters in the state said their choice of Gianforte wasn’t in jeopardy because of the incident. In fact, some voters felt Gianforte was justified for his wild behavior. The same difficulties with Quist winning his race could also be stated for Mello, who even if he didn’t face a heinous attack over his abortion record by some notable liberal figures across the country (based on initial inaccurate reporting from The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Daily Kos) would still be projected to lose to Stothert in Omaha.
All of those factors exhibit further how brave and refreshing it is that Sanders isn’t just endorsing sure-bet winning candidates in races. It maybe is hard to fathom for some, but yes, there are actually some politicians who can be consistent in their political behavior. And there are politicians who, instead of primarily looking for election wins and favorable races to endorse, actually prefer to look for figures who will have congruent beliefs with them to obtain the same goal for their constituents.
By endorsing Mello and Quist, Sanders wasn’t just doing it because he wanted them to obviously win. He was doing it because they represented the model of candidates he believes best align with the domestic visions and beliefs he’s long held. He is fully cognizant of how campaigning heavily in places national Democrats have long abandoned or given sparse attention to, and potentially winning them, will be an arduous process. He didn’t have to put his name on the line for these people, as they have all to gain with his public endorsement. And he has all to possibly lose lending his name like this. But this doesn’t damage Sanders’ popularity. Rather, it enhances his authenticity.
Looking at the big picture and not a small snapshot is what Sanders’s genuine brand is about. And by solely analyzing these two defeats as a major negative for him, one misses out on realizing a valuable trait that has made Bernie Sanders a cherished national figure that local election defeats can’t easily extinguish.