PHILADELPHIA — The thousands gathered at the Democratic convention this week are focused on the upcoming presidential election. But a small cadre of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters are setting their sights on the 2018 midterm elections.
Roughly 20 volunteers with the new group “Brand New Congress” are on the ground in Philadelphia for the convention. Their mission is to spread the word about their goal to replace most members of Congress in two years. That means Democrats, as well as Republicans.
The group plans to organize more than 400 congressional candidates who run on Sanders’ progressive platform.
Brand New Congress organizer Alex Rojas described the strategy as “have this exciting presidential-style campaign with 400 heads.”
In other words, Brand New Congress would be the central campaign organization, making decisions on staffing and fundraising. But instead of making those decisions for one candidate, they’ll be doing so for more than 400.
A group of Sanders campaign staffers and volunteers launched “Brand New Congress” in April, as Sanders’ primary campaign against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began to wind down.
At the time, the question facing Sanders’ staffers and supporters was how to keep up the momentum around his campaign and translate them into real policies.
Rojas, a digital field manager for the Sanders campaign, was drawn to the group’s mission. After being let go as the campaign was ending, she decided to join some of her former colleagues in their push to upend Congress.
“I’ve always been interested in how we can actually create all of these changes that Bernie’s been talking about,” Rojas said. “Presidency is not the place to gain enough power to actually be able to create all of those amazing changes.”
Rojas was in Philadelphia this week, helping organize volunteers. They set up a booth in FDR Park, one of the convention’s protest zones. Volunteers also fanned out around the city, passing out flyers and encouraging people to sign up as supporters.
Since launching in April, the group has amassed an email list of 20,000.
Over the past two and a half months they have also raised more than $85,000, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission report for the Brand New Congress political action committee. Roughly 90 percent of the funds came from small donations.
The group’s organizers have also laid out a detailed timeline for their goals. They plan to publicly announce their first 50 candidates by March 2017, and announce more than 400 candidates by July of that year.
The goal may seem lofty for a new organization that is run mostly by volunteers. But going big will help bring more people on board, according to the organizers.
“Skeptical?” organizers wrote on their website . “Try walking your block and asking people who their Congress person is. Ask them if they’d like a Brand New Congress made up of non-politicians.”
Rojas said the group is in its beginning stages of getting the word out through a 100-city tour, and connecting with volunteers and supporters in different states.
And they’ve already started taking names of potential candidates. On July 19, Brand New Congress blasted an email to supporters urging them to nominate people who should run.
“In general, we are not looking for career politicians or activists,” the email read. “We want you thinking of your co-workers, teachers, health care providers, community volunteers, local small business people who really care for their workers and neighborhoods.”
The group is also not wed to one party. Organizers plan to run candidates in Republican and Democratic primaries, and in the general election as Independents.
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., cautioned against party infighting, noting Democrats had a shared goal of taking back control of the government.
“The way to move progressive issues forward is to win back the House and win back the Senate,” McGovern said. “I think we need to be smart about it.”
McGovern argued that if Sanders’ supporters looked at what House Democrats have been fighting for, they would find a progressive party. And he said House Democrats should communicate that they would put the new Democratic platform into law if given the chance.
“We want those people in our party and we should want those people to support us,” McGovern said, referring to Sanders backers.
Asked about the push to run more progressives for Congress Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said, “It would be great to have more Democrats.”
Welch had endorsed Sanders for president and said it was exciting to see interest in running for office at all levels of government.
“One of the, I think, accomplishments of the Sanders campaign is to give a lot of progressive Americans confidence that they can run and they can win,” Welch said.
Sanders has encouraged his supporters to run for office, and is launching an organization of his own called “Our Revolution” to train and recruit progressive candidates. Rojas said that while Brand New Congress supports that effort, they are a separate group.
Rojas also said they won’t work to replace members of Congress who already support their platform , which includes investing in new industries to boost the economy, overhauling the criminal justice system, raising the standard of living, calling for a society that completely uses renewable energy, changing campaign finance laws, and fighting discrimination.
Time will tell whether Brand New Congress and Our Revolution can make waves in the midterm elections. But Rojas is hopeful they will.
“I think that Bernie Sanders can allow this idea to become not theoretical anymore, but very possible,” she said.