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The desperate scramble for Bernie's secret weapon

Bernie Sanders shows no sign of dropping out of the presidential race anytime soon, but the vultures are already circling over his email list — perhaps the most coveted and valuable catalog of potential voters and donors in the Democratic Party at the moment.

The post-campaign fate of Sanders’ list — his 2016 crown jewel, and the backbone of the Vermont senator’s online fundraising juggernaut — is the topic of frequent conversation among operatives working with the Democratic party committees, down-ballot candidates and a variety of liberal interest groups. Some have already begun strategizing about how to access the list through informal conversations with people close to the Sanders campaign.

For those fighting for the issues Sanders has made the centerpiece of his campaign — like campaign finance reform, the environment, and economic justice — his list of several million fervent activists willing to volunteer and donate money, often repeatedly, is regarded as something of an electoral gold mine.

But Sanders, still a White House candidate facing an uphill battle for the Democratic nomination, has all the leverage and control. So for now, any talk about his data trove takes place behind-closed-doors among Democrats eager not to offend him. Those close to his campaign recognize that if he started sharing his list now, he runs the risk of watering down his own fundraising potential as he focuses on defeating Hillary Clinton.

Democrats of all stripes also know that another, bigger, question looms: how — or even if —Clinton’s campaign will get any access to Sanders’ roster of young liberals, the group she’s struggled to reach for months.

Sanders staffers are routinely peppered with queries from like-minded activists and party types about the list’s fate — “everybody and their brothers,” said one person close to Sanders’ White House bid. Sanders’ recent move to share some of the love by sending three fundraising emails for House candidates in early April sparked an new rush of interest in the data — currently housed in the cloud at Revolution Messaging, the Democratic digital firm founded by Scott Goodstein, an alum of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Still, the campaign’s posture has been not to budge, and Democrats close to his White House bid don’t expect that to change as long as Sanders is a candidate and can continue tapping the “Sisters and Brothers” to whom he addresses each fundraising appeal — a group that’s handed him roughly $180 million so far.

“It makes total sense, people wanted to know the same thing about the Obama list, the [Howard] Dean list,” said Joe Trippi, the Democratic strategist who managed Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, the first to use such an effective online fundraising mechanism.

“I’m not surprised they’ve been pretty much, ‘My precious’ — [like the character] Gollum from Lord of the Rings — during the campaign,” added Trippi, noting that he’s recently fielded questions from people involved with other campaigns, asking if he knows who they should contact on the Sanders team to ask about the list.

Several Senate and House campaigns are respectfully hanging back and waiting to formally ask for access to the Sanders list as soon as he officially exits the race, according to multiple operatives involved with down-ballot 2016 races. Several sources said they’d prefer to reach out to the Sanders backers while they’re still engaged, and not several months down the road once the memories fade of the Vermont senator who has given Clinton a much more competitive race than she expected.

Indeed, Senate Democratic leaders like Minority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Tester have already been in talks with the Sanders camp over how to share his data when he’s ready.

“There’s efforts ongoing,” said Faiz Shakir, Reid’s digital director, pointing to Wisconsin Senate hopeful Russ Feingold as the kind of candidate — a liberal in a state where Sanders campaigned extensively — who lines up ideologically and would be eager to use the list.

“He’s built up an incredible list of passionate believers in bold, Democratic ideas,” added Shakir. “In order to remain impactful, relevant, and helpful to the party, I think you have to find a way to leverage the enthusiasm he’s generated after his campaign has concluded.”

Sanders’ staffers won’t comment on the exact size of the list, but his campaign has said it has 2.2 million donors, and the New York-based firm eDataSource estimates that there are 5.2 million email addresses on it. The very fact that Sanders’ online fundraising prowess has become a focal point means that the question of what to do with the list is all the more complex.

“There’s this view among the Washington consultant class that these members are an ATM and you throw some words at them and they’ll give you money no matter what,” said Neil Sroka, a former Obama 2008 campaign aide now working as communications director of Democracy For America, which has endorsed Sanders. “Everyone in the Democratic Party is going to want Bernie Sanders’ seal of approval and a chance to share their message with the people on his email list.”

The Democrats’ eagerness to get their hands on Sanders’ list took off after he sent emails for congressional hopefuls Lucy Flores of Nevada, Zephyr Teachout of New York, and Pramila Jayapal of Washington. While it’s still unclear exactly how much of a Bernie bump they all got, Las Vegas ABC affiliate KTNV reported earlier this week that Flores had already raised $428,000 in mostly small-dollar contributions. Sensitive to any implication that Sanders may lose the nomination to Clinton, the campaign has yet to offer any hints of its plans for the list.

“Sen. Sanders is focused on winning the nomination and carrying the campaign to voters in all of the remaining states. They deserve a voice in the democratic process. The amazing backing and enthusiasm of the senator’s millions of grassroots donors is one of the reasons for the success of the movement,” said Sanders communications director Michael Briggs. “Sen. Sanders has said from the beginning that this campaign is not just about electing him president. The political revolution is about energizing and mobilizing a movement of Americans to continue the struggle for real progressive change the day after the election. The senator has a strong track record of lending his support to other progressive candidates that dates back all the way to Jesse Jackson’s run in 1988. This year, he’s already raised significant funds to help elect progressives to the House and Senate.”

Nonetheless, given the delegate deficit he faces, Democrats widely expect Sanders to bow out of the race at some point later this summer, leaving Clinton as the party’s presumptive nominee. At that point, Clinton allies are likely to ask for some sort of access to the Sanders list, creating the challenge of reconciling their interests after months of occasionally high tensions between the two camps.

Several sources predicted Sanders would more likely send fundraising emails on Clinton’s behalf rather than transfer to her the entire list in full.—

Beyond the campaigns that will end in November, a variety of left-leaning groups have also started thinking about what they could do with some sort of access to Sanders’ database.

“We’d be interested in getting ahold of those names,” said Common Cause spokesman Dale Eisman. Likewise, Paul Sonn, the program director and general counsel for the National Employment Law Project, which is lobbying for a $15 minimum wage, said his organization would “obviously be a real good match up” with the Sanders coalition.

Some Sanders backers have higher ambitions for the list and cringe at the idea some of their fellow Democrats are eyeing it in pure dollars-and-cents terms.

Erich Pica, the head of Friends of the Earth Action, said such partisans don’t “understand what Bernie is creating, nor do they value, I think, the deep activist commitment that the Sanders campaign has been able to organize over the last year.”

“It’d be a shame if the list and fundraising capacity was used for the short-term transactional nature of presidential politics,” he added. “There’s something greater there that needs to be used for generational change.”

The question of how exactly Sanders organizes himself and his data after his presidential campaign ends also must be answered. He could create his own new organization — much like Dean did with Democracy for America in 2004 (its email list now exceeds 1 million) and Obama did with Organizing for America in 2009. Those close to Sanders expect him to take advantage of his email list in the future no matter what happens in the ongoing race. And given how the independent senator has responded in other high-profile political and policy fights, they expect him to ultimately play ball with Democrats.

“Bernie usually finds a way to be helpful at the end of the day,” Shakir said. “That’s always been the case, whether it was the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank. There are places where he might have, initially, some concerns. At the end of the day, he’s found a way to be helpful. That’s his instinct, and my sense is he’d be similarly disposed on this, as well.”

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