At Bernie Sanders’ rally Sunday in downtown Denver, the Democratic presidential candidate and his biggest Colorado supporters shared a consistent message as they spoke to a massive, fired-up crowd.
Medicare for All. Protecting the environment. Promoting workers’ rights. And beating Michael Bloomberg.
“We are going to end a corrupt political system in which billionaires buy elections. Democracy, to me, means one person, one vote,” Sanders said to thunderous applause at the Colorado Convention Center. “Not Bloomberg, or anybody else, spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to buy an election.”
The amount of time Sanders and his surrogates spent making the case against Bloomberg while virtually ignoring the other candidates in the Democratic primary is a strong indication that the Vermont senator’s campaign sees the billionaire former New York mayor as a formidable threat, and a perfect foil, in Colorado.
The state of Colorado’s presidential primary is almost completely unknown. The last public poll on the race was conducted in August, when Bloomberg wasn’t even a candidate.
But the remarks Sunday could shed some light on the contest as voters begin casting their mail-in ballots. And they make Colorado an extension of a growing, national battle between Sanders and Bloomberg playing out from North Carolina to the West.
Sanders went on the offensive earlier Sunday, during a rally in Nevada, where he also accused Bloomberg of trying to buy the election. Other Democratic presidential primary candidates, including Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Joe Biden, too, have tried to ding Bloomberg for using his wealth as a tool in the campaign.
The offensives come as Bloomberg’s money threatens to blunt other candidates’ progress in the nation’s 14 Super Tuesday states, including Colorado, which host their primaries on March 3.
“It’s not surprising that as Mike continues to rise in the polls that other candidates, including Donald Trump, are getting nervous,” said Curtis Hubbard, a spokesman for Bloomberg’s Colorado campaign.
As for the criticism that he is trying to buy the election, Hubbard said Bloomberg is simply using every resource available to defeat President Trump, no matter which Democrat is the party’s nominee.
“He is using his money toward that end and has said he will use it regardless if he is the nominee,” Hubbard said.
Sanders won the 2016 Democratic presidential caucuses in Colorado over Hillary Clinton. This time around, he has an army of volunteers helping to spread his message and has now held two massive rallies in Denver where he urged his supporters to help push him across the finish line next month.
Bloomberg, meanwhile, has invested more in Colorado than any other candidate. He has spent $5.8 million on television ads so far and another $1 million on Facebook ads in Colorado, all while building up a staff of more than 50 people working out of offices across the Front Range, from Denver to Colorado Springs and Jefferson County to Aurora.
Bloomberg has also visited twice in the past three months, further emphasizing that his campaign sees Colorado as a prime opportunity after jumping into the race too late to make a splash in early states like Iowa and Nevada. Instead of massive rallies, Bloomberg has held more intimate events, including a gun-control town hall that wasn’t open to the public and a campaign office opening in downtown Denver.
With what’s essentially an unlimited pool of funds and endorsements from a host of respected Colorado Democrats — including former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and state Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial — Bloomberg is positioning himself as a candidate to be reckoned with.
Sanders, by comparison, has only two paid staffers in Colorado. He is running spots on television and Facebook in the state, but has spent just $469,000 on TV spots and $129,000 on Facebook ads.
But the Sanders campaign sees its Colorado strength in its numbers. They have held hundreds of events and boast about a statewide network that’s several thousand people deep.
“Bloomberg may have the money,” said Joe Calvello, a Sanders spokesman, “but we have the people.”
Sanders has also won endorsements of his own, including from state Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, and former state Rep. Joe Salazar, who now leads a group opposed to the oil and gas industry.
Salazar and Sirota helped push the anti-Bloomberg message during Sunday’s rally, attacking Bloomberg for being a former Republican and for being a middle-of-the-road Democrat.
“In this primary, we are facing a Republican billionaire, who has fought against minimum wage increases, tried to cut Social Security, defended fracking, endorsed George W. Bush and promoted a racist stop-and-frisk policy that terrorized communities of color,” Sirota said from the stage before Sanders spoke. “My message to Michael Bloomberg is this: We are not allowing you and your friends on Wall Street to buy this Democratic primary.”
Salazar, the executive director of the anti-hydraulic fracturing group Colorado Rising, blasted “cowardly moderates” and “incrementalists.”
“Billionaires are trying to buy the presidency,” Salazar told the crowd.
Sirota, whose husband is a senior adviser on Sanders’ campaign, said Monday that she brought Bloomberg up in her speech because she thinks he represents the exact opposite of Sanders.
“I think it’s just completely counter to the campaign Sen. Sanders is running, fueled by small-donor donations,” she said.
But she also acknowledged that Bloomberg’s spending represents a hurdle. “The airwaves are flooded by Bloomberg,” she said.
Sanders supporters also see Bloomberg as a force to drive turnout in the primary election and fire up volunteers. Before Sunday’s rally, Our Revolution, a Sanders-aligned political organizing nonprofit, held an event in Denver during which it attacked Bloomberg’s candidacy.
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“Everything we are organizing to fight against is represented by Michael Bloomberg,” said Joseph Geevarghese, the national executive director of Our Revolution. “It is something that moves our members.”
The Bloomberg campaign is attacking Sanders right back. It released a digital ad Monday blasting the aggressive online tactics of Sanders’ ardent supporters, who fiercely defend the senator.
It’s not clear, however, if Bloomberg will use that messaging in Colorado as part of his spending in the state. While Bloomberg hasn’t announced another Colorado visit before Election Day, Hubbard said he’d be surprised if he doesn’t return.
Colorado voters have already received their presidential primary ballots or will get them in the coming days ahead of the March 3 election.
Colorado Sun writer Sandra Fish contributed to this report.