The last time Bernie Sanders ran for president, he was treated like a pariah within the Senate Democratic Caucus: His colleagues thought his campaign was a liberal fantasy that served only to damage Hillary Clinton.
This time, though, the Vermont independent is getting a warmer reception from the senators who constitute much of the Democratic establishment he’s railed against.
It’s not that the Democratic Caucus is rallying behind him; most of its members would prefer a more mainstream nominee, even if they’re unwilling to say it at this point. But they’re giving Sanders props for what he’s accomplished and say if he’s able to win the nomination, more power to him.
“There was a question in my mind of whether he could get back up on the bicycle after four years. But he’s off to a solid start,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat and a staunch Clinton supporter in 2016. “I know Bernie, I’ve worked with Bernie. I understand him. People have images of him, which may be different than mine. But if you’re asking me about Bernie Sanders vs. Donald Trump? No problem.”
“I don’t want to speak for Bernie, but my sense is that he’s comfortable that it’s a level playing field,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “And that even if he doesn’t succeed, that his views are being well-represented in the Democratic Party.”
Sanders was added to the Senate leadership team after his 2016 loss, putting him in close proximity to Democratic leaders he had little to do with before. The exposure “pushed Bernie to reach out more to inside the party,” said Larry Cohen, chairman of pro-Sanders group Our Revolution.
Democratic leader Chuck Schumer is remaining neutral in the crowded primary, as are a majority of Senate Democrats caught in awkward positions between the half-dozen senators running. Generally, senators avoid talking about a single candidate out of fear they would offend someone in the caucus.
Yet it’s clear there’s been a sea change over the past three years in how Democratic senators view Sanders. They said they respect the movement he’s built and its potential to help the party defeat Trump, whether or not Sanders is the nominee.
Many Democrats insisted on anonymity to speak candidly about the primary, but they acknowledged Sanders is no longer persona non grata.
“I certainly hear out in the political world a lot of concern [about Sanders]. I don’t hear a lot of that internally,” one Democratic senator said. Democrats “look at him differently because he’s not running against Hillary Clinton. He’s a major player in the party in a way that he wasn’t [in 2016]. He looked like a quixotic candidate. It’s not like people are sitting around thinking about how to keep the nomination from him” this time.
There are a few reasons for that. Democrats believe there’s a decent chance Sanders could peter out on his own and that going after him would only give him and his followers ammunition to attack Washington insiders. But there’s also a feeling that if Sanders can come out on top of a level playing field in 2020, then he’s earned it.
“The worst thing you can do is push somebody out. They just dig in harder,” added a second Senate Democrat. “My guess right now is if you’re to do a straw poll he’s the favorite to win.”
“There were a lot of people that wanted selfies with Bernie. A lot more than wanted selfies with me,” he said. “There’s a lot of affection for him.”
But it’s not just selfies, it’s money and organization, too. Sanders raised $6 million the day he launched his campaign and, in early polls, is the clear second choice after former Vice President Joe Biden, who has not entered the race. He also hired Faiz Shakir, a former top aide to Harry Reid, as his campaign manager, a fresh approach from the insular 2016 campaign that raged against the Democratic establishment.
And the 77-year-old Brooklynite has a diverse group of campaign co-chairs, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and San Juan, Puerto Rico, Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
“He’s demonstrated that he is a serious, formidable candidate. And I think that the field will narrow very quickly,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), predicting Sanders would survive the first culling of candidates and saying that he’d be comfortable with Sanders as the nominee.
Sanders has taken note of the change in tone.
“There is respect now within the Democratic caucus for the movement that Bernie has built and sustained over the past four years,” Shakir said in a statement. “As a result, the ideas Bernie pushed in 2016 have become mainstream in the Democratic caucus and leadership has embraced his message of taking on the wealthy and powerful corporations.”
Shakir added that Sanders has been “encouraged by his colleagues’ willingness to collaborate” and noted that a “record number of people” have co-sponsored bills like “Medicare for All.”
That’s not to say Sanders doesn’t have his Democratic detractors. The most conservative Senate Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, declined to commit to supporting Sanders over Trump if the Vermont senator wins the nomination. Manchin and Sanders have long had a frosty relationship.
All other Democrats interviewed for this story said they would support Sanders if he becomes the nominee.
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), however, is not ready to endorse anyone after being Sanders’ lone Senate supporter in 2016.
Several senators said privately that Trump would be able to more easily defeat Sanders than any other Democrat. That’s an echo of Republicans’ view that a Sanders nomination would be a gift to the incumbent president, as Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) put it.
But most Democrats expressed confidence that the president would be out of office come 2021.
“We’re going to beat Trump regardless of who the nominee is,” Brown said.
A handful of Democratic senators are openly questioning Sanders’ agenda. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said it was “unimaginable” that Sanders wouldn’t call Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro a dictator, picking at Sanders’ foreign policy acumen.
“If you want to be president, you deal with domestic policy and you deal with foreign policy. And I don’t understand how one cannot simply recognize a dictator for being a dictator,” Menendez, who backs Booker, said.
And Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who is pressing Biden to enter the race, questioned how Sanders would “actually come up with a policy agenda” that could become law.
“This year’s different and there’s a much higher expectation” for Sanders, added Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), another close Biden ally.
Yet Sanders’ calls for a higher minimum wage, universal health care, and tougher environmental regulations have been embraced by most of his rivals. Whether or not he’s the nominee, the Democratic Party is now partially the party of Sanders, his once-skeptical Senate colleagues concede.
“He brings a dimension to our primaries,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said, “that will be helpful for us to win and take back the White House.”
Holly Otterbein contributed to this report.