Burlington, Vermont— For the first century after the founding of the Grand Old Party in 1854, Republicans dominated the politics of the state of Vermont like no other. For more than 100 years, Vermont Republicans won every major race for every statewide office. Republican presidential candidates from John Fremont in 1856 to George H.W. Bush in 1988—with the single exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964—won the Green Mountain State. For one of Vermont’s US Senate seats, an unbroken Republican winning streak continued from before the Civil War to the beginning of the 21st century.
Only in 2006 was the Senate seat streak broken with the election of a candidate who was not a Republican.
Of all the announced and potential contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, none has a longer track record of taking on tough races, beating incumbents, and upsetting the political calculus. Sanders has won 14 elections in Vermont, including ten straight races for the US House and US Senate as the most politically successful and longest serving independent member of Congress in American history.
Many years ago I pitched a magazine editor on a story about Bernie Sanders, then a congressman from Vermont, who’d agreed to something extraordinary – he agreed to let me, a reporter, stick next to him without restrictions over the course of a month in congress.
“People need to know how this place works. It’s absurd,” he’d said. (Bernie often uses the word absurd, his Brooklyn roots coming through in his pronunciation – ob-zert.)
Bernie wasn’t quite so famous at the time and the editor scratched his head. “Bernie Sanders,” he said. “That’s the one who cares, right?”
“Right, that’s the guy,” I said.
I got the go-ahead and the resulting story was a wild journey through the tortuous bureaucratic maze of our national legislature. I didn’t write this at the time, but I was struck every day by what a strange and interesting figure Sanders was.
Many of the battles he brought me along to witness, he lost. And no normal politician would be comfortable with the optics of bringing a Rolling Stone reporter to a Rules Committee hearing.
But Sanders genuinely, sincerely, does not care about optics. He is the rarest of Washington animals, a completely honest person. If he’s motivated by anything other than a desire to use his influence to protect people who can’t protect themselves, I’ve never seen it. Bernie Sanders is the kind of person who goes to bed at night thinking about how to increase the heating-oil aid program for the poor.
This is why his entrance into the 2016 presidential race is a great thing and not a mere footnote to the inevitable coronation of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee. If the press is smart enough to grasp it, his entrance into the race makes for a profound storyline that could force all of us to ask some very uncomfortable questions.
Here’s the thing: Sanders is a politician whose power base is derived almost entirely from the people of the state of Vermont, where he is personally known to a surprisingly enormous percentage of voters.