Burlington, Vermont— For the first century after the founding of the Grand Old Party in 1854, Republicans dominated the politics of the state of Vermont like no other. For more than 100 years, Vermont Republicans won every major race for every statewide office. Republican presidential candidates from John Fremont in 1856 to George H.W. Bush in 1988—with the single exception of Barry Goldwater in 1964—won the Green Mountain State. For one of Vermont’s US Senate seats, an unbroken Republican winning streak continued from before the Civil War to the beginning of the 21st century.
Only in 2006 was the Senate seat streak broken with the election of a candidate who was not a Republican.
His name was Bernie Sanders.
Of all the announced and potential contenders for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, none has a longer track record of taking on tough races, beating incumbents, and upsetting the political calculus. Sanders has won 14 elections in Vermont, including ten straight races for the US House and US Senate as the most politically successful and longest serving independent member of Congress in American history.
That does not mean that Sanders, who today will formally launch his first presidential campaign, is anything other than a longshot in the 2016 Democratic contest. The proud democratic socialist is the first to acknowledge that it would take “a political revolution” for him to win the nomination, let alone the presidency. Yet those who dismiss Sanders as the product of what they presume to be the steadily liberal politics of a small New England state do not know much about the electoral history of Vermont or about the role that Bernie Sanders played in reshaping the state’s politics.
Sanders played a critical role in forging Vermont’s progressive reputation as an outsider candidate who beat incumbents, won statewide races when Republicans were taking the other top jobs, and upset partisan patterns that once seemed to be locked in stone. He has done so by audaciously challenging both major parties—defeating a Democratic mayor of Burlington in his first winning race and defeating a Republican congressman a little less than a decade later. Sanders has won Democratic primaries several times and then refused the nomination in order to pursue a November run as an independent. Now he seeks to win Democratic presidential primaries in a race with front-runner Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s poll lead is daunting, both nationally and in key states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. But Sanders is posting poll numbers that suggest he could win delegates in both states. And he is just getting started with a run about which he says: “Don’t underestimate me.”