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Can Bernie Sanders Boost This Congressional Candidate To Victory?

Democratic congressional candidate Lucy Flores speaks at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in February in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller
Getty Images
Democratic congressional candidate Lucy Flores speaks at a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in February in Las Vegas.

The reach of Bernie Sanders' political influence will be tested Tuesday in a Nevada congressional race.

Lucy Flores was among the presidential candidate's first endorsements earlier this year, and his blessing and subsequent fundraising plea helped the former state legislator raise over $600,000 for her competitive Democratic primary.

Now she is facing off against two rivals who both have support from swaths of the Democratic establishment. And she is hoping the progressive energy she has worked to create can boost her in the close race for the right to challenge freshman Rep. Crescent Hardy, one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the country.

Flores' main competitors in the Democratic primary in Nevada's 4th District have their own big boosters. State Senate Minority Whip Ruben Kihuen has the backing of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and former President Bill Clinton, while Nevada education leader Susie Lee has been endorsed by EMILY's List, the influential Democratic group that backs pro-abortion-rights women.

Flores enjoyed high name ID at the beginning of the contest, thanks to her unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor two years ago. But the race has predictably tightened.

According to Jon Ralston, a longtime political reporter and analyst in the state, the Sanders endorsement has "helped her immeasurably" and kept Flores in the game.

"I do think that even though she had the most name recognition going in and she was ahead in early polls, she wouldn't even be in this conversation if it weren't for the mutual embrace between her and Bernie Sanders," Ralston said.

Flores has leaned heavily on her association with Sanders. She endorsed him early on in his run for the presidency, and he later returned the favor by using his massive fundraising list to help boost her campaign.

Flores told NPR in an interview last month that the cash infusion certainly helped her to be able to compete with her opponents, who had deep pockets and powerful Democratic machines behind them.

And, she said the unlikely success Sanders had achieved in the Democratic race — even though he now looks all but certain to fall short in his ultimate goal of the nomination — has helped her raise progressive issues to the forefront of the contest, including a minimum wage increase, decriminalization of marijuana and Wall Street reform.

"It's not so much that we are all espousing views that all of a sudden became popular," she told NPR. "Those are issues that matter to the everyday person. Now, because of Bernie I think, people are starting to make that connection between those issues and candidates."

In the fundraising pitch he wrote for Flores, Sanders pointed out her own unique biography.

"Lucy Flores was the first Latina assemblywoman in Nevada and made national news when she became one of the first elected officials to testify about an abortion she had at the age of 16," Sanders wrote. A former gang member who found herself in juvenile detention before the age of 15, she eventually turned her life around and became a lawyer.

The similarities between the two the Democratic Party power brokers they're both working to defeat wasn't lost on Sanders, either. He argued that, "Lucy Flores is exactly the kind of person I'm going to need in Congress when I am president. And we can help get her there."

Flores has also been endorsed by other national progressive groups, such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, NARAL Pro-Choice America and, all of whom hope that if they can elect more progressive candidates like Flores, the political movement Sanders has helped build will live on regardless of whether he is the Democratic nominee.

"Throughout this campaign, Sen. Sanders has been focused like a laser beam in building progressive power both in the short term and in his presidential campaign," said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America. "I think the work that he's doing supporting a lot of the candidates that he's announced so far is a reflection of that focus."

DFA, Sroka said, has also recommended many candidates to Sanders to endorse and is working to continue to identify like-minded progressives who could benefit from his help. And with the grass-roots training they've done with Sanders volunteers on things like phone banks, knocking on doors and fundraising, they're hopeful that will have a trickle-down effect too.

Tuesday's election in Nevada is the first test of whether the renewed progressive fervor Sanders has helped create can have an impact at other levels of the ballot box.

But, as Ralston noted, it's also incumbent on the candidates themselves to build up an effective campaign. He said that Flores may not have built a strong enough field program to overcome the advantage the self-funding Lee has and the power of the labor groups that are behind Kihuen, who is probably a slight favorite heading into Tuesday.

"I don't think she was able to leverage the money she raised to its maximum potential," Ralston said.

Who emerges from this race will have a bearing on how things play out in November, too. Republicans are anxious to face Flores, who they believe is too far to the left to flip the seat. But even then, Hardy — who represents a district President Obama carried twice and will lean even more Democratic in a presidential year — is still the underdog.

"There's no doubt that Crescent Hardy's people want Lucy Flores. They think Lucy Flores is their only hope of survival," Ralston said.

But even if Flores does fall short, there are other progressive hopes to come in contests this summer. Sanders has also endorsed Pramila Jayapal in Washington and Zephyr Teachout in New York. And his most high-profile, high-risk endorsement is Tim Canova, who is trying to oust Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, in Florida, from her congressional seat.

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Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.