After packing The Colonial Theatre in Keene this March shortly after launching his 2020 presidential bid, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has not campaigned in the Monadnock Region since.
Sanders’ deputy state director, Carli Stevenson, said Monday that while no return date has been set yet, “we’re not taking anybody for granted” in an area that has come to be known by politics buffs as “Bernie’s backyard,” with a Keene-Monadnock Region field director already on the job and plans to hire more area field organizers over the summer.
While “Bernie’s backyard” is sometimes used to mean the entire Granite State, political scientists like Dante Scala at the University of New Hampshire in Durham define it more closely to counties along the Vermont border.
In his 2016 New Hampshire Democratic primary victory, the Vermont senator’s best performance came in Cheshire County, where he won 70 percent of the vote. Going up along the Connecticut River to Sullivan and Grafton counties, Sanders also secured hefty majorities of 68.5 and 66.6 percentage points, respectively.
The self-described democratic-socialist beat the eventual nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, by a comfortable margin of 22 percentage points statewide that February.
Four years later, voters in the Connecticut River Valley and Monadnock Region could be crucial in tipping the scales amid a crowded field, according to Scala.
In a recent interview on his career and research for The Sentinel’s “Pod Free or Die” politics podcast, Scala said the Monadnock Region is an “especially interesting part of the state” going into 2020 because of how the 2016 primary turned out for Sanders.
The ascendancy of what Scala calls “reform- minded” progressive voters in New Hampshire has made the areas surrounding Keene and Lebanon critical campaign turf, according to the professor, particularly for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has been gaining in both national and early state polling amid a steady stream of policy proposals.
With a similar ideological framework — though Warren identifies as a capitalist in favor of regulatory reforms — and high visibility as neighboring-state politicians, Sanders and Warren have an overlapping appeal among these voters.
And although half the voting population in New Hampshire is contained within Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, Scala cited the importance of the smaller voting block in the Connecticut River Valley as having more sway in 2020 because of how heavily the vote could be split statewide.
“With two-dozen candidates, we could be talking about 20 percent of the vote, right? Twenty-five percent of the vote could win,” Scala said. “So do you venture into the Connecticut River Valley and hit it hard in ‘Bernie’s backyard,’ so to speak, to try to win over those voters? But that’s going to be, even though the Connecticut River Valley — it’s a minority of the total vote — that could be crucial for (Warren and Sanders), the difference between finishing first and finishing fourth.”
According to NBC Boston’s 2020 candidates tracker, Sanders has hit Hillsborough County more than any other county in the state, with six visits, followed by five in Merrimack County, three in Strafford County, two in Rockingham County, one in Belknap County and just The Colonial Theatre rally in Cheshire County. Sullivan, Grafton, Coos and Carroll Counties have yet to see the Vermont senator as a 2020 candidate.
Warren has visited Grafton County four times, but has held just one event in Cheshire County with a stop at Keene State College in April. The other neighboring-state candidate in the race, U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., has not visited any of the Connecticut River Valley counties yet, but has made 16 stops in Hillsborough and Rockingham counties, according to the NBC Boston tracker.
Stevenson, who is also the Sanders campaign’s N.H. communications director, said that regardless of his success in the New Hampshire primary four years ago, the campaign is making sure to pay its dues to Granite Staters going into February 2020.
“Under no circumstances are we resting on our laurels from 2016,” Stevenson said Monday. “When we go out and organize and campaign every day, we’re not thinking about the success that we had in 2016.”
She noted that the Sanders campaign apparatus is much more robust at this early stage than it was at a similar point in June 2015.
A field office was not opened until September of 2015, she said, while this year, the campaign started canvassing in May and already has Josh Rodriguez on the ground as the Keene-Monadnock Region field director, with a field organizer reporting to him.
Stevenson added that she expects more field organizers to be hired over the summer, and that by primary day in 2016, only three were on the payroll in the region.
While Sanders’ most recent appearance filled the more than 800 seats at The Colonial, Stevenson said the Vermonter has also been doing smaller events across the state, such as “ice cream socials,” where he takes photos and is accessible in a more intimate way.
Those who still “feel the Bern” can also attend “Barnstorm with Team Bernie” events, such as one off Central Square in Keene Thursday, where attendees can RSVP online and learn about the campaign’s strategy.
Stevenson, a Londonderry native, said she knows firsthand how much New Hampshire voters hate being looked over by big-shot national politicians, and vowed that the Sanders campaign won’t make that mistake.
“We do not want to get stuck in a mindset that we don’t have to work just as hard, if not harder, than we did last time,” Stevenson said. “Because people do have so many options to choose from.”