Iowa Underdog Candidates Link Campaigns With Sanders’ Revolution

A crowd of thousands erupted in cheers for underdog U.S. Senate candidate Tom Fiegen when he took the stage at the Jefferson Jackson Dinner on Saturday night – not so much for him, but for the Bernie Sanders sign he hoisted into the air. Fiegen says it was unplanned theater, an impromptu gesture to emphasize his support of Sanders, whom he shares many of the same progressive policy priorities. The moment may stand as the highlight of his run during the primary, in front of the largest audience he’ll likely stand before.

Fiegen joins Gary Kroeger, one of three Democrats running for the party’s 1st Congressional District nomination, in publicly backing Sanders for the Iowa Caucus. It’s a interesting strategy to take, considering they all face primaries of their own next June.

Most political consultants warn against such a move. Why endorse a candidate in a separate contentious primary when you could risk turning off potential supporters for yourself? That hasn’t stopped either Fiegen or Kroeger, both of whom describe it as more of a natural progression in policy agreement with Sanders than a specific campaign tactic.

“I align well with Bernie Sanders and I see no reason to hide the truth,” Kroeger explains, who endorsed Sanders last week. “On campaign finance reform, I believe Sanders is right on the money. Citizen’s United must end … From my perspective it is only a strength to stand for convictions and to stand with others who share them … I bristle at “politics by the numbers,” which says that candidates should avoid/side-step making such announcements (for fear of alienating other voters). There is an undercurrent of dishonesty in politics which people are sick and tired of.”

“I had people who were mutual supporters of me and Bernie saying to me, ‘man, Tom, there’s so many parallels, why aren’t you endorsing Bernie, why aren’t you throwing in with him?'” Fiegen says. “Many of the things I’ve been talking about in my Senate race, having to do with bringing back Glass-Steagall, breaking up the big banks, raising the minimum wage, universal healthcare, Medicare for everybody. Those were exactly the things Bernie was talking about, so lots and lots of parallels.”

Both candidates may feel they have little to lose with the potential risks. Most Iowa political watchers consider them long-shots to win their respective primaries next year. Fiegen, a former state senator, placed 3rd in the 2010 Senate primary with 9.4%, and his campaign says they have raised a mere couple thousand dollars this cycle. Kroeger, a former SNL cast member who now works at a Cedar Falls advertising agency, garnered only 6% in a recent poll of the district (it was an internal poll sponsored by an opponent, but that’s all we have right now) and has trailed his competitors in fundraising ($57,000 for Kroeger to Monica Vernon’s $753,000). They still have worked the campaign trail hard, with Fiegen saying he puts 8,000 miles on his car a month, having visited 84 Iowa counties so far.

For Fiegen, the public show of support for Sanders at the JJ Dinner brought real benefits.

“I was surprised,” he said of the reaction. “When I raised the sign over my head, there was this instantaneous roar … the only place where I saw ‘stone-silence’ was the thousand-dollar-a-plate tables on the left side of the stage. The high-dollar Democrats were sitting there like concrete statues.”

He sees that disparity as reflective of the current dichotomy in the party between Sanders and Clinton support, and knows which side he’d like to line up with. Fiegen also noted that he had written his backing of Sanders into his 150-word introduction that IDP chair Andy McGuire read for each candidate, but that the party edited it out (they would have cut out mentions of any presidential candidate).

Fiegen also says he got some high-fives from Sanders’ state and national staff as he exited the stage, but the reaction wasn’t only limited to the cheers in the hall.

“My Twitter feed has gone crazy since Saturday night,” Fiegen notes. “From the moment I was on stage there has been hundreds, if not thousands of tweets from Sanders people, not only in Iowa but around the country.”

Many of Kroeger’s closest advisers and friends also work with the Sanders campaign. Kroeger himself was invited to speak at Bernie Sanders’ concert and rally in Davenport the night before the JJ Dinner. He helped pump up the crowd of over 2,000. The event itself may have been located outside the 1st Congressional District, but still drew plenty of people from Cedar Rapids and elsewhere.

“The Sanders folks have been very enthusiastic about my endorsement,” Kroeger says, but cautions about reading too much into it. “However, I am not suddenly Bernie Sanders-lite in a congressional race. I stand on my own and this association is only a reflection of my purpose to serve people first. It is a piece of the larger puzzle to create change in our political system.”

Still, what will supporters of Clinton and Martin O’Malley think of these endorsements? Will they care, or even remember come next June? One would think for it to have any real damaging effects, Clinton supporters would have to both really hate Sanders and completely transfer those feelings onto Fiegen and Kroeger because of an endorsement.

Fiegen has experienced a little push back to his frequent social media posts supporting Sanders, noting some county party activists have asked if he’d welcome their support if they are with Clinton, and whether he’d support her in the general election.

“I’ve said to my friends … absolutely, I welcome your support no matter who you’re supporting on February 1st in the caucus,” Fiegen says. “[Some Hillary supporters] have asked me point-blank, if Hillary is the nominee, will you support her? I have said to them, yes. When I look at the clown car that is the Republican Party, even though I disagree with Hillary on a number of points, if she is the nominee, I will support Hillary.”

The danger going forward may lie in how divisive the Democratic presidential primary gets. The JJ Dinner appears to have marked the beginning of a phase where all three candidates draw increasingly sharper contrasts with one another.

“Let’s cross that bridge when we get there,” Fiegen says of what that could mean for his endorsement, adding that the disagreements so far are almost entirely on policy. “I think that’s fair game – I don’t see that as negative, it’s not mud-slinging. It’s simply allowing people to see the distinction between the position that Bernie has held for 34 years, going back to when he was mayor of Burlington, and positions that Hillary is now espousing that she wasn’t a year or two, or five years ago … I think Hillary owes Democrats and progressives answers on that. If it leads to some fall-out, my campaign will deal with that and see as it comes up.”

As for Fiegen and Kroeger themselves, Bernie Sanders’ success serves as inspiration to their own difficult paths to their nominations (though it should be noted that Sanders has kept considerably more competitive in fundraising than them).

“Not only can I see [Sanders] winning the Democratic nomination, I think he can win the presidency,” Fiegen says. “In my mind’s eye I can see him at his swearing-in ceremony … I really want to be in the U.S. Senate to help pass his legislative agenda.”


by Pat Rynard
Posted 10/27/15

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