Bernie Sanders Is Trying to Be a Kingmaker in Key Congressional Races

PHOTO: Sen. Bernie Sanders greets Russ Feingold, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, as he enters the stage in Madison, Wisconsin, Oct. 5, 2016.PlayAmber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP
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Bernie Sanders is thanking House Speaker Paul Ryan these days.

Earlier this month, while speaking in his home state of Wisconsin, Ryan warned, "If we lose the Senate, do you know who becomes chairman of the Senate budget committee? A guy named Bernie Sanders."

Sanders did not miss a beat. He turned Ryan’s words right around and used them as a rallying cry, giving his supporters a tangible reason to back other progressives and Democrats running for office this fall.

Last week, in just three days, the Vermont Senator brought in over $2.4 million dollars to help four Democratic Senate candidates, his staff says, with a fundraising email that pointed directly to Ryan’s comments. Those candidates were Catherine Cortez Masto in Nevada, Deborah Ross in North Carolina, Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, and Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania. "#ThanksPaul, for helping to continue the political revolution," Sanders and his team tweeted Monday.

During his presidential primary campaign, Sanders proved to be a capable fundraiser. He often brought in large amounts of money and fast with thousands of small dollar donations. Now, two weeks before Election Day, he is aggressively tapping his large network to generate cash for a wide range of candidates.

Here’s a look at candidates from several states the celebrity progressive is backing:

Russ Feingold (U.S. Senate, D-Wisconsin)

Early this summer, when Sanders telegraphed his intentions to fundraise for his favorite progressive candidates, Feingold was at the top of his list. Feingold served in the U.S. Senate for 18 years before losing his seat in 2010. During his tenure in Washington, Feingold was best known for passing legislation with Arizona Sen. John McCain targeting money in politics and campaign finance -- some of Sanders’ chief issues. Feingold was also the only Senator to oppose the original Patriot Act. This fall, Feingold is fighting a re-match against the Republican who beat him last go-around. Several polls have him slightly up, though he has taken heat for raising so much money from national donors outside his state.

Catherine Cortez Masto (U.S. Senate, D-Nevada)

Cortez Masto has enjoyed some high-profile help, including visits from President Barack Obama and Sanders to campaign by her side. A former Nevada Attorney General, Cortez Masto would be the first Latina to serve in the U.S. Senate. She is running to fill the seat of outgoing Democratic Senate Leader Harry Reid and has enjoyed a recent surge in the polls. Nevertheless, the race looks like a toss-up in the last few weeks.

Maggie Hassan (U.S. Senate, D-New Hampshire)

Now in her second term as governor, Hassan has taken on the sitting Republican Senator, Kelly Ayotte and the two women have engaged in one of the most hard-fought, expensive and closely-watched Senate contests this election. Sanders has visited New Hampshire a lot lately, a state he knows well and won by a landslide during the primary, to campaign for both Hillary Clinton and Hassan. He frequently uses Hassan as an example of a colleague he’d like to have in the Senate. Polls have been all over the board in the race, but a local WMUR poll out this week showed Maggie Hassan up by 8 points.

Zephyr Teachout (U.S. House of Representatives, D-NY 19th District)

Sanders has also used his star-power to fundraise for several relative political rookies, including Teachout running for Congress in a district south of Albany, NY along the Hudson River. The area is not known for being particularly left-of-center and the congressional seat is currently held by a Republican. Nonetheless, Sanders took a chance on Teachout, a fiery progressive and law professor and backed her in primary race.

He wrote in an early fundraising email, "Zephyr Teachout literally wrote the book on political corruption. She understands better than anyone how special interests try to buy off politicians, and she's dedicated her career to fixing our broken political system." From fighting against fracking and for breaking up "too big to fail" banks, Teachout and Sanders seem like two birds of a feather.

"Sanders’ campaign really shook up with country on money in politics and on trade –- two issues I care a lot about," she told ABC News during an interview this week. "I was so proud to have had his endorsement. I was proud to have endorsed him early on and it has been terrific to see the young people, especially, who have come in and gotten excited about politics because of Sanders and then have gotten engaged in our campaign."

Just this week, the National Republican Congressional Committee posted an ad blasting Teachout for being too close to Sanders. The ad says her similarities to the Vermont senator mean she does not accurately represent the district. "Teachout loves socialist senator Bernie Sanders," the ad says.

With two weeks left, Teachout described the current status of her race as a "tie," but said with all of the support she has been receiving from issue-based activists, she was optimistic she would pull out a win.

Pramila Jayapal (U.S. House of Representatives, D-WA 7th District)

Jayapal, another lesser-known political recruit, from Washington State, was one of the first candidates to receive Sanders’ endorsement. With his backing and early fundraising support she won her crowded primary handily. The next day, Sanders said in a statement, "When you think of the political revolution, I want you to think about Pramila." Sanders has since traveled to Washington State to campaign alongside Jayapal.

Jayapal immigrated to the U.S. from India to attend college and has spent her life organizing anti-hate and anti-discrimination campaigns. As a Washington State Senator she introduced legislation to increase the local minimum wage. With Washington’s top-two primary system, she is actually running against another Democrat who also considers himself a progressive. The race is very close.