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‘I’m not a Bernie Bro’: Sanders’ base splinters in California

Sen. Bernie Sanders greets the crowd at the MoveOn Big Ideas Forum at The Warfield Theatre on Saturday in San Francisco. | Kimberly White/Getty Images for MoveOn

SAN FRANCISCO — Bernie Sanders put down roots in California during the last presidential race — and he never really left. Now, he is making the delegate-rich, early voting state, where progressives are ascendant, a central part of his 2020 campaign.

But as the Vermont senator sets up camp here again, he finds himself in a different and perhaps less favorable environment, without Hillary Clinton to play off, surging energy behind a progressive rival in Elizabeth Warren and a popular home-state senator, Kamala Harris.

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A crush of events this weekend centered around the state Democratic Party convention here — from ballroom speeches to intimate meals to a liberal forum organized by the influential group MoveOn — laid bare the emerging scramble to cut into Sanders’ progressive base.

“Last time, Sanders was able to run as the only progressive against an establishment candidate,” said Doug Herman, a California-based Democratic strategist. “There are multiple options for a progressive candidate at this point—if that’s who you want to elect. And polling is showing that Warren is taking the biggest bite out of Bernie’s base.”

California’s Super Tuesday primary — and the liberal-leaning state’s glut of delegates — has heightened its importance next year. The convention served as a kind of curtain-raiser for its millions of voters, but also a chance to chip away at Sanders’ standing in front of plugged-in activists. Public and private polls of the state, which largely mirror national figures at the top, show former Vice President Joe Biden running in the lead, followed by Sanders, Harris and Warren.

Warren, Sanders’ chief rival on the left, made an unmistakable show of force in San Francisco, offering herself as an uncompromising fighter while touting her plans to hike taxes on the richest Americans and zero-out mounting student loan debt. A day after headlining a big rally Friday in Oakland, she used the convention to promote her platform of ambitious, structural change: “We will not be a party that nibbles around the edges,” she declared to huge applause.

Elizabeth Warren

“Too many powerful people in our party say, ‘settle down, back up, nothing to be angry about,'” Sen. Elizabeth Warren said at the MoveOn Big Ideas Forum. | Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images for MoveOn

The Massachusetts senator implicitly contrasted her transformational appeals with Biden, who was absent from the events in California, after using the first weeks of his campaign to advocate a return to bipartisanship. “Too many powerful people in our party say, ‘settle down, back up, nothing to be angry about,'” Warren said.

“Some say if we all just calm down, the Republicans will come to their senses,” she added to boos. “But our country is in a time of crisis. The time for small ideas is over!”

The early jostling for key liberal constituencies played out at other events as well, like a union-sponsored breakfast that drew a half-dozen presidential hopefuls vowing to turn back the Trump administration’s rollback of some labor protections, which Harris called an “unapologetic attack” on labor.

In an interview with POLITICO, Harris addressed how she’s trying to appeal to California progressives who didn’t support Clinton and found themselves drawn to Sanders’ bid in 2016.

“My message to them is that I intend to earn their vote and I’m not taking anything for granted,” said Harris, who drew large, energetic crowds everywhere she went and had a heavy footprint at the convention. “They’ve been with me, shoulder to shoulder, arms and arm through many fights together, whether it’s fighting the big banks in the U.S., or marriage equality, or the Homeowners Bill of Rights. We’ve been in tough fights before — and we’ve won.”

Bernie Sanders

At the labor meeting, Sen. Amy Klobuchar highlighted her family’s union roots; former Rep. Beto O’Rourke spoke of seeking a higher minimum wage and springing working-class immigrants from wage “bondage,” and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg talked about his city’s post-industrial path back to prosperity, acknowledging that he doesn’t resemble the “dictionary definition” of a presidential candidate that’s been “marinated in Washington.”

“In these times, Democrats can no more promise to take us back to the 2000s or 1990s than conservatives can take us back to the 1950s,” Buttigieg said. “We can only look forward.”

In the liberal bastion of Oakland, Harris’ hometown, a crowd of more than 6,000 lined the streets for a half-mile and packed Warren’s rally on a soccer field. In the mix of Baby Boomers and Millennials, many wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Persist” and clutched signs that said, “She Has A Plan.’’At the end of an hour-long speech, Warren offered to stay as long as necessary so that “everyone gets a selfie.”

John Foster, a party activist from the city, voted for Sanders last time, but said he’s searching for a different voice and a different candidate — with the priority being one who can unseat Trump.

“I’m not a ‘Bernie Bro,’” he said, adding, “Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden feel a little tired to me.”

Karine Jean-Pierre and Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders focused his remarks on ideas that have become commonplace in the party like Medicare for all. | Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images for MoveOn

Foster said Warren piqued his interest because she appears substantive, and ready to offer more details about her plans for change. “I really appreciate her economic justice package, and a lot of what I’ve read on her taxation and education proposals,’’ he said.

At the MoveOn forum Saturday, Warren and others made their pitches to the left. Cory Booker talked about his “baby bonds” plan to confront wealth inequality by giving newborns savings accounts and adding money into them every year. But the New Jersey senator also took a hard line on locally-based tech giants that facilitate the spread racism: “I’m going to make sure that here out in Silicon Valley, these social media platforms do not become platforms for hate and bigotry,” Booker pledged.

O’Rourke’s big idea centers on respecting immigrants rather than punishing them with threats of deportation, a position he said should not be embraced anywhere in his party. And he acknowledged that women in the presidential race face unequal — even sexist — treatment in how their campaigns are covered or talked about: “There are advantages in this race that I have that I did not earn,” O’Rourke conceded.

Asked about Warren’s wealth tax earlier in the day, Harris allowed that her rival was “onto something,” before pivoting to her own tax proposal that provides $ 500 monthly rebates to families earning less than $ 100,000 a year. Harris’ plan to pay women equally to men drew a standing ovation at the liberal event while the loudest cheers on the party convention floor came amid her calls to impeach Trump.

Sanders, who addresses the full convention Sunday, focused his MoveOn remarks on ideas that have become commonplace in the party like Medicare for all. He directed considerable time to stopping “endless wars” and cutting military spending.

Sanders’ aides and allies liken California to the four traditional early voting states and pledged a vigorous campaign here. At a rally Friday in Pasadena, he went out of his way to thank the state’s voters for their “great support” in 2016 in talking about its importance to him in 2020.

Watch this animal-rights protester snatch a microphone from Kamala Harris

Sanders announced on the opening day of the convention that he had made his first hires in California, including Shelli Jackson as state coordinator and Susie Shannon as political director. He also installed regional directors in Los Angeles, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay area and in the Inland Empire and Orange County. Campaign Manager Faiz Shakir said Sanders would build a “volunteer army” in the state.

But some Democratic strategists privately noted Sanders’ apparent lack of emphasis in the state’s more conservative Central Valley — a potential opening for others to claim voters there. O’Rourke and Julian Castro have both traveled to the Central Valley recently, and Buttigieg is scheduled to appear at a town hall in Fresno on Monday.

Dan Gordon, a North Hollywood Democratic strategist who runs the “Schmolitics” podcast and served as a delegate for Sanders in 2016, said he remains a “big supporter of his ideas.” Though he may support Sanders again this year, he said, he is still looking at others, including Warren, Buttigieg and Harris, and he wished Sanders wouldn’t run.

“I think he’s divisive, and it’s not entirely his fault,” Gordon said. “There’s still bad blood from people who were Hillary supporters and Bernie supporters. Like most every Democrat, I want to make sure that a Democrat wins in 2020, and I’m a little bit nervous about the divisiveness that comes with Bernie.”

He said, “I think he can do more good as a visionary leader on the outside.”

David Siders and Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.

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