Progressive superstars like Beto O'Rourke, Andrew Gillum, and Stacey Abrams all either lost or are trailing extremely close races in Texas, Georgia, and Florida. But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders insists Democrats' takeover of the House of Representatives and other key wins are a vindication of the progressive posture he's long advocated for.
"Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum ran brilliant campaigns. Created enormous excitement at the grassroots level, and were running in states that are tough states for Democrats," Sanders told NPR. (Abrams has not conceded in the Georgia gubernatorial race, Gillum initially conceded his race for governor late Tuesday night but his campaign is now suggesting they may await a possible Florida recount.)
In an earlier interview with the Daily Beast, Sanders appeared to have placed part of the blame for Gillum and Abrams' apparent losses on the fact that neither state had ever elected an African-American governor. "You know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American."
Sanders' spokesman insists those remarks were taken out of context. Speaking to NPR, Sanders said any votes Gillum or Abrams lost over their race were entirely due to what he called "racist" campaigns run by their Republican opponents.
"There's no question that in Georgia and in Florida racism has reared its ugly head. And you have candidates who ran against Gillum and ran against Stacey Abrams who were racist and were doing everything they could to try to play whites against blacks," he said. "And that is an outrage, and we have got to continue doing everything that we can to fight all forms of racism."
Gillum's campaign repeatedly pointed to what they deemed racist statements by Rep. Ron DeSantis and his supporters, a charge DeSantis vehemently denied. In a memorable moment, Gillum turned to DeSantis during a debate and said, "I'm not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist. I'm simply saying the racist believe he's a racist."
As Sanders surveys Tuesday's results, the once-and-possibly future presidential candidate says the most telling Democratic victories came in the Midwest.
"Trump became president because he lost the popular vote, but he won the Electoral College in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Well, three out of four of those states elected Democratic governors, and all four of those states elected Democratic United States Senators," Sanders said. "So I think Trump's victories in those very important states may not be longstanding."
Several Democratic leaders are reading the party's major gains in the House and reclaiming of governorships and other key posts as an endorsement of moderation. Many of the Democrats who flipped suburban Republican-held House seats shied away from the no-holds-barred assault on President Trump that so much of the Democratic base has gravitated to over the past two years. Sanders, who won another Senate term Tuesday running as an independent, clearly disagrees with that assessment. "Democrats are fighting back because many of those Democrats are now running on progressive agendas."
"When the freshman class in Congress takes office in January it is going to be the most progressive freshman class in the modern history of this country," he said. "You're going to have many people there who won elections based on the fight for Medicare-for-all, based on raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, based on making sure we lower the cost of prescription drugs."
Sanders certainly isn't a disinterested observer on the question of whether or not the Democratic Party's future lies in bold progressive or strategically moderate positioning. Despite never joining the party, he finished second in its 2016 presidential primaries, and is considering whether or not to try again in 2020.
Like many other possible 2020 candidates, Sanders made sure to include key primary and caucus states like Iowa and South Carolina on his travel itinerary in the final weeks of the midterms.
Sanders bristled at the widely-accepted idea that the 2020 primary is already underway. "Never-ending elections," he said, "are very unfair to the American people who get a little bit sick and tired of that."
But with the Democratic field expected to be well into the double digits, Sanders acknowledged he won't be able to wait as long as he'd like to announce a run. "I'm going to have to make a decision in the not-too-distant future," he said, "But I think we have a few months to make that decision."