Bernie Sanders convened his top political advisers in Washington on Saturday for a planning meeting that included a discussion of the feasibility and shape of a possible 2020 presidential campaign, half a dozen senior Democrats familiar with the gathering confirmed to POLITICO.
The top-line message the Vermont senator received from the operatives gathered during the government shutdown was a more formal version of the one they’ve been giving him regularly for months: You would be one of the front-runners for the Democratic nomination. And if you want to run, it’s time to start seriously planning accordingly.
The Democratic socialist's response to the series of presentations, according to multiple Democrats: I haven’t yet made a decision about 2020, but I still think beating Donald Trump is the most important thing for this country. And I want to be ready if I do decide to run.
Sanders regularly speaks with a close group of advisers and periodically brings top allies in to discuss his political maneuvers, but Saturday’s get-together included planning for the rest of 2018 as well as a specifically slated 2020 component, said Democrats familiar with the session scheduled for the one year anniversary of Trump’s inauguration. Part of the discussion included gaming out how the rest of the field might look, since 2016’s landscape — effectively pitting Sanders directly against Hillary Clinton — was far more straightforward than the expected 2020 free-for-all.
Multiple Democrats close to Sanders insisted that the meeting was not solely a 2020 planning session, and that the conversation was one in a series of talks that he frequently has with aides and associates in regular, less formal sessions. But they all acknowledged that this gathering was larger than the rest, and that it included a pre-planned discussion of the next presidential race.
The senator, 76, has consistently refused to rule out running when asked over the last year, instead pivoting the conversation to other topics.
“The senator is extremely focused on making sure the Democrats win in 2018 and that is the primary goal right now: to retake the House and retake the Senate so we can stop this horrendous Trump agenda,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager and top political adviser.
Sanders has remained toward the top of polls surveying the potential Democratic field without fail after his stunning 2016 bid, and he has been working methodically to address major issues that plagued him politically last time, boning up on foreign policy and making nice with a series of party power brokers. He also visited both Iowa and New Hampshire multiple times in 2017, a traditional sign of a possible run.
Saturday's crowd was largely made up of top alums of Sanders’ 2016 campaign, a group of who were later spotted dining together on Saturday evening at the downtown BLT Steak restaurant famous for its popovers and $60 Kansas City cuts.
Along with Sanders, participants in the meeting included Weaver, while Sanders’ wife Jane called in on the phone. Nina Turner, the Ohio state senator-turned-president of Our Revolution, Sanders’ post-campaign political organization, was there too.
Veteran Democratic strategists and ad makers Mark Longabaugh and Julian Mulvey were in attendance after playing central roles in shaping the 2016 campaign, as was California-based pollster Ben Tulchin, who Sanders brought into the fold in 2015 after launching his last campaign.
Among the other attendees were senior Sanders senate adviser Ari Rabin-Havt, online fundraising guru Tim Tagaris, political adviser Chuck Rocha, and former Sanders communications aide Arianna Jones.
Still, not all of the senator’s top past or current advisers were in attendance at the meeting, which came just as some Sanders campaign alums work through concerns about how difficult a successful 2020 bid could be. Some high-level Sanders allies have recently raised concerns with his advisers that the senator had better start re-activating his early-voting state infrastructure if he intends to run again. While the senator is up for re-election in Vermont in November, he is highly unlikely to face any significant challenge.
On Monday, two days after the meeting, Sanders emailed his massive list of supporters to update them on his 2018 strategy. He intends to support candidates all over the country, he wrote, in addition to “reactivating the distributed organizing network that was at the heart of our grassroots success in 2015/2016.”
The next day, he hosted a town-hall event focused on his Medicare for All proposal that drew over 1 million viewers online, tweeted his communications director, Josh Miller-Lewis.
Over three dozen Democrats are currently considering running to challenge Trump, making the potential primary unpredictable. But if Sanders were to opt for a run, the field would likely shape itself around him — and he would find himself a target — as it might also for his fellow co-favorites, former vice president Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.