Bernie Sanders left Las Vegas on Saturday morning in a light drizzle. By the time he arrived in San Antonio hours later, his path to the Democratic nomination seemed as big and clear as the Texas sky.
The Vermont senator’s dominating performance in Nevada solidified his place as the front-runner in an increasingly fractious and frantic primary. His rivals are now running out of time and, with the exception of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the resources required to blunt his momentum. If Sanders continues to gain steam and support, he could – in as few as 10 days – amass a practically unbreakable delegate lead on Super Tuesday.
In San Antonio on Saturday night, Sanders ignored his Democratic rivals and delivered a general election-style call to action. He also spelled out, for anyone who wasn’t familiar, the pillars of his revolution: To raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour; launch a “Green New Deal”; expand public housing; boost government support for organized labor; offer tuition-free college to students, while canceling their debt, and pay raises for school teachers; take apart “the prison industrial complex”; legalize marijuana across the nation and deliver “Medicare for All.”
While Sanders discussed his vision, the other candidates were arguing – with increasing urgency – that his platform would be a loser against President Donald Trump in November.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s speech in Las Vegas focused almost exclusively on making the case against Sanders.
“I congratulate Sen. Sanders on a strong showing today, but before we rush to nominate Sen. Sanders, let us take a sober look at what’s at stake,” Buttigieg said, before casting the front-runner as “inflexible” and unelectable, the leader of an “ideological revolution that leaves out most Democrats, not to mention most Americans.”
Buttigieg, who is running television ads against “Medicare for All” in South Carolina ahead of next week’s primary there, pilloried Sanders’ signature single-payer health insurance legislation, warning again that its passage would draw every American into a public plan, “whether they want it or not.”
At around the same time, former Vice President Joe Biden was talking about Sanders, too.
“I ain’t a socialist,” Biden said, before making reference to a recent report, disputed by top Sanders’ aides, that the Vermont senator considered challenging former President Barack Obama in 2012. “And by the way, I was proud to have and run with Barack Obama. And I’m proud to still be his friend, and I’ll tell you what – I promise you I wasn’t talking about running a Democratic primary against him in 2012 like some people.”
In Seattle, Sen. Elizabeth Warren re-upped her recently minted criticism of Sanders.
“I am not in this fight to talk about change,” she said, again questioning why Sanders won’t commit to pushing for an end to the Senate filibuster. “I am in this fight to make change.”
Bloomberg hasn’t formally joined the contest yet, having decided to skip the first four states, but the billionaire’s campaign manager said the results in Nevada only “reinforce the reality that this fragmented field is putting Bernie Sanders on pace to amass an insurmountable delegate lead.”
Unspoken, in his statement, was Bloomberg’s own role in the splintering.
There is only one more debate now before Super Tuesday. The moderate field shows no signs of coalescing behind any one candidate. If anything, the rivalries between candidates like Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, or Biden and Bloomberg, are only escalating. Sanders has taken his share of hits, but his upward trajectory, which began in October, remains largely unchanged.
Still, he faces potential stumbling blocks up ahead. His romp in Nevada will bring about another round of increased scrutiny of his record and policy proposals, as well as more pointed attacks on his past personal and political history.
California, where Sanders is banking on another big win, is expensive, and its primary system can be complicated, especially for voters who have not registered as Democrats – a cohort that Sanders relies on.
The news that the intelligence community briefed Sanders on the Russian government’s efforts to aid his campaign didn’t hurt Sanders in Nevada, but the long-term implications remain unclear. Sanders’ initial reaction to the report, on the tarmac during a Friday tour of California, was revealing – his rebuke of Russian President Vladimir Putin painted a stark contrast the current president; but his implication that The Washington Post timed the report to hurt him in Nevada left a sour taste.
Saturday, though, was sweet for a campaign that saw its strategy and political message validated by caucusgoers in Nevada, the most diverse state to vote so far, and one with a powerful union presence. The largest one, Nevada’s Culinary Union, did not endorse any of the candidates, but made clear that Sanders, because of Medicare for All, was a non-starter.
In his victory speech, Sanders thanked union members – in a sly but pointed nod to reports that the rank in file came out for him over the objections of their leadership – for their support in Nevada.
That was how he ended a day on the trail that began with a rally in El Paso, Texas, where supporters, many in Tío Bernie t-shirts, were greeted in the lobby of the venue by a four-piece Mariachi band.
When they took the stage, the group performed a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
Sanders, after Nevada, seems to be on his.