Sanders keeps ’em guessing: Bernie to seek Senate reelection as independent, amid 2020 talk

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said Sunday he’ll run as an independent for reelection next year, as he made his second visit in less than two months to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state of neighboring New Hampshire — leaving his 2020 plans anybody’s guess.

The 2016 Democratic presidential candidate discussed his Senate reelection in an interview following an appearance in this small town along the Maine border. Sanders’ trip to the critical primary state stirred more speculation that he just might run again for the White House in 2020, especially as he rallies the left wing of the party around a controversial ‘Medicare-for-all’ bill on Capitol Hill.

But first things first. The former Burlington mayor turned congressman turned senator is up for reelection next year for a third term in the Senate. Minutes after energizing Democratic activists packed into an American Legion hall, Sanders dismissed any suggestion he’d run for his own seat as a Democrat next year.

“I am an independent and I have always run in Vermont as an independent, while I caucus with the Democrats in the United States Senate. That’s what I’ve been doing for a long time and that’s what I’ll continue to do,” Sanders said in the interview.

Some political strategists say if Sanders were to run for reelection as a Democrat, it would have been a clear tip to his 2020 intentions. However, running once again as an independent doesn’t preclude Sanders from making another bid for the Democratic presidential nomination either. 

In his 45-minute speech on Sunday, Sanders received numerous standing ovations as he headlined a Strafford County Democratic Committee fundraising dinner and played the hits from last year’s campaign: demanding tuition-free college, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the creation “of decent paying union jobs,” and the overturning of Citizens United.

“I love what Bernie says. I love the fact that he gets people energized. I love the fact that he gets people out to vote. If no other candidate can do that, then yes I’d like to see Bernie run again, but I’d like to see him with a very young vice president.”

– Strafford County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Ellen Phillips

Sanders argued “these are not radical ideas.”

The senator highlighted his single-payer health care plan, a long-shunned proposal that in the current climate has become a vehicle for Democratic colleagues — especially those eyeing a 2020 bid — to prove their liberal credentials.

“It seems clear to me that we have one system that works well, and that’s called Medicare. Now is the time to expand Medicare for all and create a single-payer health care system,” Sanders said.

He said that last time he introduced the legislation, “I had one co-sponsor. Me.”

This time, he crowed, “we have 16 co-sponsors.”

While Republicans blast his health care bill as a colossal budget-buster, Sanders on Sunday took rhetorical shots at the other side of the aisle. The ranking member on the Budget Committee described the Senate GOP budget that narrowly passed last week as “ugly” and railed against Republican tax proposals as a “moral obscenity.”

Asked later about his game plan to bring down the GOP tax plan, Sanders explained, “I think we go to the American people.”

He voiced confidence it will be defeated “just as we were able to defeat their efforts to destroy the Affordable Care Act.”

Sanders crushed eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire’s February 2016 Democratic presidential primary, launching him toward a long and bitter battle with Clinton for the nomination.

The Democratic divide exposed by that race remains to this day.

Sunday’s quick trip back to the Granite State was his second in two months. He headlined a major union breakfast in Manchester and a progressive rally in Concord on Labor Day.

Strafford County Democratic Committee Chairwoman Ellen Phillips said this was the first time a non-Democrat — in this case, an independent who caucuses with Democrats — headlined one of their fundraising dinners. She said, “It’s been an issue for me,” but added that “he’s going to make a lot of money for our candidates and that’s a good thing.”

Phillips said she voted for Sanders in last year’s presidential primary, but cautioned that Sanders’ age — he’s 76 — may be an issue next time around, adding that if she had her choice, she’d like a younger progressive as the Democratic Party’s nominee.

“I love what Bernie says. I love the fact that he gets people energized. I love the fact that he gets people out to vote. If no other candidate can do that, then yes, I’d like to see Bernie run again, but I’d like to see him with a very young vice president,” she added.

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